12 Days that Changed My Life
and the Lives of
I am here to say that play, in and of itself, is enough.
The two American teenagers who accompany every Operation Smile mission are included to provide health education for the children and parents. They learn all about, and come prepared with, handmade materials to teach everything from tooth brushing to hand washing, from burn prevention to burn care. The idea is that while all these families are waiting, waiting, waiting for their turn at screening and their child’s turn on the operating table, why not put on an educational show for this captive audience.
My understanding is that the Magees, who founded Operation Smile, brought their own kids with them in the early days of going on missions. They soon discovered that a couple of kids with nothing medical to do were incredibly valuable! They naturally fall into the role of Play-ologists and Lovey-Dovey-Liasons.
I imagine the plan for the teens to serve an educational role, instead of just being fun, helpful and nurturing, was designed to legitimize their inclusion because when one goes out seeking funding, you must justify the expense of a couple of teenagers and their chaperone (me). Can you, if play and hand holding is all they’ll be doing? If I were Boss of the World (and of the generous souls who donate to NGOs), I would tell them that play and nurturing is enough. I saw it a thousand times (honestly no exaggeration), Brendan and Hunter, the two U.S. teens that were on our mission, were making life changing contributions to the mission, to the lives of the patients and to the peace of mind of the patients’ parents.
And the boys did in fact do a ton of health lesson (We were reminded later that we were supposed to have kept track of how many of each type. We totally blew that part of our assignment! Yikes and sorry, Op Smile. Next time I’ll get my students to keep an accurate log, promise!). The boys sometimes found presenting the lessons awkward and difficult. Yes, the parents and the kids listened —well, the kids listened, but only if their parents forced them! They were having too much fun goofing around with all the cool free toys and entertainment, and trying hard NOT to think about what lay ahead. They wanted and needed fun distraction! The parents listened politely, but jeez, they were being given life changing surgery for their child for free. Of course they listened and of course they nodded and smiled.
I look at the mission and wonder if play is enough. But then I think play is enough, in many situations. I am a big play advocate and am not alone in advocating for more play for everyone. There is endless research showing that play is valuable on many, many levels.
Yet we as a society continue to grill our preschool teachers about what will be the academic curriculum for our 3 year olds and sign our kids up for after school enrichment this and advanced that. I’ve taught preschool for decades. I always tell my parents that our curriculum is kindness. I can say without hesitation, even if a preschool teacher never taught colors and shapes, or letters and numbers, almost every preschooler would pick those things up long before kindergarten any way. And as a parent, my kids were outside playing in the mud not taking pre-algebra.
So again I say, play is enough. Really. Ask T. Berry Brazillton. Ask Mr. Rogers. Ask Oprah. OK, not Mr. Rogers. I know he’s dead–I know it but I don’t much like it! So check with the other two! They’ll tell you the value of play! I am not saying that teaching medical units should be abandoned. No way! The information is too important–Oral Rehydration Therapy saves the lives of thousands of children a year. It’s easy to teach. It’s easy to learn. It is yet another way that Operation Smile is having a positive impact everywhere it goes.
It’s pretty cool that parents who come to Operation Smile for help, walk away with a child with a new smile and a family educated about important ways to keep their children safe! How about giving local teens or volunteers, who speak the language, this assignment.
But then why bring the U.S. teens if locals can do the health presentations in the native language? For several reasons. The U.S. teens and their chaperone are seen as having inside access to the doctors and an understanding of how the process will unfold, but without being as scary to talk to. This is huge! It’s such a comfort to them to have someone they can ask the trivial questions, the questions they think are silly. Additionally, going on a mission is a reward earned by the students who have given years of service to Operation Smile while they attend high school. The possibility of going on a mission certainly motivates the high school students to work hard raising funds for Operation Smile. And finally, the trip is life changing. Operation Smile takes a young adult who has participated in Operation Smile at their high school for a myriad of reasons (be honest, we all know kids do charity work in high school to beef up their college apps.) and makes them into adults who, because of their mission experience, will for the rest of their lives be active in volunteer efforts. How cool is that?! Pretty darned cool. Operation Smile rocks!!
So I assert that as parents, as educators, as people interested in a healthy society, we all need to stand up for play. That includes play for kids and play for adults. Have you played lately? If not, how about making play a priority!
And, I humbly acknowledge that I speak as someone with only the experience of one mission in a country that I imagine holds fewer challenges than many other countries! My inexperience as a volunteer on missions, may very well mean that I am wrong/naive, but I am certain that play has incredible value in this process (hand holding, too).
Smile. Be happy. Play. Be happier.