At my first Beyond IQ, one of the other adults commented to me, that when you put a group of socially-awkward gifted kids in a room together, they will socialize and play, with few signs of awkwardness. That struck a cord with me, because I remember my own difficulties integrating into my school playground. It seemed like most of the other kids formed social groups and played well together effortlessly. Not without friction or conflict, but the basic process seemed organic. For me it wasn’t — I felt like socially, I had two left feet. Some kids played soccer… I didn’t know the rules, and I didn’t like to run, but I knew that the game was missing one thing that I always saw in adult sporting events: a commentator! You can imagine how things went, when I tried to join the game in that capacity. Not well. I remember pacing the perimeter of the playground, hoping to be “beamed up” to a starship, or someplace that made more sense. While other kids played, I had to learn how to play…
I remember when I first went to CY-TAG – Iowa State’s summer gifted program for middle and high-schoolers. Outside of classes, we had “mandatory fun” activities, and a fair amount of unstructured time during which we could do just about anything — as long as it was legal and PG-rated, and we stayed in the dorms. Mandatory fun had the same problem as the school playground—the more athletic and socially well-adjusted kids played Frisbee or other physical games, while I waited on the sidelines for it to be over. The unstructured time was where I started learning to play. We had access to dry ice, and a few of us would get together in a dorm room and just goof around with it—making fog, playing mad scientist, and putting tiny bits of it into mouthfuls of water so we could blow out fog, like dragons blowing smoke. One girl brought her violin, and invited me to play it—knowing that I didn’t know how. In my ‘normal’ life, I would have balked at showing a lack of skill in front of another person, but somehow it felt easy—effortless—to just pick up the bow and pull out a few notes. My new friend cheered and clapped, and – surprisingly – I was able to take her enthusiasm for enthusiasm, not wondering if I was being mocked. Other times, I would just sit with one other person and talk about whatever we were thinking or doing or planning. Not just talk past each other or talk at each other, but actually talk with each other. For the first time, when I was in a group of gifted kids, I was able to just feel like a normal kid. One of the friends I made in that first year at CY-TAG is still among my best friends, 17 years later.This kind of play, this easy, cooperative interaction with no point or goal beyond the fun, was both alien and wonderful. It felt relaxing, and I felt connected to other people in a way that I could rarely do at home. It helped that nobody was watching. At the mandatory fun, I felt pressure to play “the right way,” with the RA’s and all of the other kids watching. On the playground, I knew from experience that I would not play “the right way” for my age-mates. In our free time at CY-TAG, I could choose to be with the people I felt comfortable with, and able to connect to. We could be free from outside scrutiny, and I could relax. When I came back to my normal school in the fall, I felt more confident in my ability to socialize with other people my age. I had thought I was going away for the summer to learn geometry (that didn’t go as well), but the part that was really life-changing was the play time.
As an adult, I still have trouble playing with others in a way that is directly engaged, as opposed to parallel. It’s easy to have conversations in which one person lectures while the other listens, to lose myself in a video game, or to go for a walk or a bike ride in the presence of another person who is doing the same. I have to work hard to convince myself that interacting – engaging – with other people isn’t a waste of my time or neural activity. I started learning to play at CY-TAG, but replicating it is still an effort.
This blog is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Gifted at Play. To read more blogs in this hop, visit this Blog Hop at http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_gifted_at_play.htm.