A love that transforms

Her eyes welled up with tears. Bent over, she covered her face as her tears began to fall and let out her hurt in one big cry. At first, he defended himself. “But her picture is not very good. I didn’t want it,” he said with a cold, logical tone. Another hero piped up with passion in her voice, “But you’re not supposed to say anyone’s artwork is dumb on VALENTINES DAY! It’s supposed to be a day filled with LOVE!”

It was obvious this young hero was not aware of the effect his words had on his art-loving, gift-giving friend. Maybe this experience would turn into an empathy-building moment for him, I thought. I bent down and looked at him in the eyes. “When you said her picture was dumb, how did she feel?” I asked.

“Sad,” he mumbled, with a distant quality in his voice.

“How do you know?” I continued. “What does it look like she feels right now?” I hoped he would use some of the tools of identifying emotions we had been exploring during our morning circles.

“She’s crying,” he observed. “Oh… she’s sad.” he said with more awareness as it finally “clicked”.

“Yes,” I agreed. I went one step further. “How do you feel, knowing that what you said caused her to feel so sad?”

“Sad,” he said quickly, with tender authenticity. “Oh… I have a big-mistaked-feeling… I’m sorry.” Quickly he went over to his hurting friend. With love in his voice and eyes, he gently said her name and made his apology. She felt his love and chose to open herself to healing.

I felt proud of him. He showed great effort and openness to his friend’s feelings. Yet this isn’t how it’s always been. When he first came to us, he came with arms crossed, heart locked up, and a determined grimace on his face that showed his mistrust – at just 5 years old.

With this “against” mentality, he had entered our studio. From the beginning, I knew our quest would be to shower him with love, sifting through the resistance to find the little seedlings of tender curiosity and creativity growing inside – and pour on all of the fertilizer I could muster. Our older heroes joined me in this venture, creating fun ways to play with him during our gym times and outdoor times, and even inviting him to do works with them in the studio. At first, he could be found wandering around the studio during work time. Over time, he chose to read a book in the calming corner instead – and we praised him for his focus. After more time had passed, he began to be open to his first work he was truly curious about – his sound book.

This was not just any sound book – no. Knowing his fascination with super heroes and ninjas, I quickly adjusted it – calling it his very own “Ninja Sound Book.” We spent a little time together each day, practicing the sounds of the letters and thinking of characters that had particular sounds in their names. This entire process began to unlock in him the curiosity, creativity and courage that is inside. He has begun to identify himself as a part of our community, and is beginning to embrace our studio contract – our promised code of conduct to each other. Phrases such as “Your contract” and “I don’t care” are fading. In fact, the day before our Studio Exhibition this past week, he said something that surprised us all.

“Last exhibition, I was late because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be here. But this exhibition, I’m going to be on time. I’m not going to be late – I’m going to do my part,” he said with great boldness as we had gathered around to reflect after our studio maintenance jobs that morning. Sure enough, the next day’s exhibition came, and there he was, excited for the day and on time.

To go from a posture that is “against” the world to discovering what one is “for” – this is the transformation that unleashes the world changer inside. This is the power of empathy, acceptance and love within a community to awaken our authentic, creative selves and unlock our potential.

Creations, Challenges and Conflict, Oh My!

“Oh!” one hero gasped as he put his hands over his mouth, looking in awe at the structure he just built out of playdoh and pasta. “It stayed up!!” He squealed with joy, celebrating with his friend. “Miss Rachel, come see what I made!” invited another hero, as he tapped my arm and pointed to his magnet tile creations across the room. As I walk toward his little collection, I notice two other heroes hard at work washing, peeling and chopping carrots with a veggie chopper together, and later washing dishes. They are filled with joy and peace as they focus on their work to prepare an afternoon snack for the others. Still another is “scrape painting” and attaching the words for her studio exhibition invitation to share with her parents.

Children are genuines – with such a strong creative superpower. It brings me great joy to see them engaged in creating with their minds and their hands each day. For while they are creating a structure, a tower, or even beautiful little carrot coins, they are engaged in the work of creating themselves.

And yet, we know that the creative work isn’t without its difficulties. What happens when the tower falls? What happens when a hero struggles to figure out the challenge? What happens when one hero’s creativity collides with another’s? Downcast faces. Tears. Anger rising. Conflict. Victimhood. Resistance. Distraction. The desire to control comes knocking on their hearts.

Then like a life raft tossed to them, a choice is offered: Will they speak from anger or speak from their hearts? Will they speak blame or share their feelings with vulnerability? Will they hold onto anger or seek a solution? Failure and frustration has taught them to see the power of initiating a conflict resolution. They have experienced the help and comfort it offers first hand and are now quick to grab the peace flower and use this life raft on their own. This is deep learning. Interaction by interaction, day by day, peace is created out of anger. Trust is created out of hurt. Agility is being infused through the breakdown moments. Each hero’s courageous voice to ask for what they want and need is developing. Such a beautiful, powerful foundation for their lives.

Their openness and joy in this journey is inspirational!

Follow the child – pirate style

Give me back my bones!” our pirate-like voices rang out in unison as the heroes held their wiggly mini paper skeletons, limbs attached to the body with golden brads. It was the third time this week we had enjoyed the book in our afternoon story time. Some skeletons were acting out the story, while some were along for the ride. Inspiration and excitement filled our hearts.

Little did I know when the week began how much they would be interested in learning about their bones – how they look, where they are, even what their funny names are. When we opened up this book, questions and curiosity overflowed. An experience of discovery began as we reached out to find and touch our bones. We laughed together as the character exclaimed, “Where did I leave my phalanges?”

It was clear. We needed a skeleton craft – and fast. After a quick google search and a trip to the store, we had one the next day – a wiggly skeleton with golden brads. I couldn’t wait for the heroes to meet him!

Mr. Skeleton was introduced the next afternoon to a few excited heroes. As these few learned how to cut, hole-punch and attach the pieces together, inspiration spread like wildfire. Pretty soon, most of the heroes had made their very own skeleton, all on their own accord, while some enjoyed the experience through observation. During afternoon circle the next day, we had almost double the number of participants – including a whole host of skeletons, carefully arranged by their owners, so they could hear the story too. Some even took apart all of their skeleton’s pieces so they could attach them one by one, going along with the Give Me Back My Bones story.

By the following day, these skeletons were now taking on identities of their own – some with hats, others with swords or even a peg leg. They were accompanying some heroes on their work-time adventures, or resting next to them at DEAR time. I chuckled as I observed the creative additions to our studio life.

During DEAR time this day, one hero in particular was wandering; like a stalled car on the highway without gas to propel him forward. This hero is fascinatingly creative. He loves to create stories of being a ninja with special powers. He has found his place with the other heroes through the imaginative “Superhero Family” play happening outside most days. As he wandered around, I saw in his eyes a sense of not being sure – was he ready to ease into peaceful exploration and creativity, or would he fight the structure for attention?

Right away I grabbed the book I knew he would love – Give Me Back My Bones. “Look what I found for you! Would you like this book? Can I help you get your mat out?”

Like a car filled with gas, a big smile spread across his face, we got his mat ready together, and he snuggled down to read his newly favorite book.

Sometimes all we need is a little inspiration – a whisper that reminds us what we love and an invitation to focus on that.

It is a joy to witness the growing curiosity and creativity of this band of heroes – and follow behind to nurture and water and bring to life the beauty that is inside.

A breakdown leading to breakthrough

“This is so hard.” His shoulders slumped, feeling the weight. He stopped building, scooted over and began playing with the tiles instead. He looked up with tears in his eyes and emotion in his throat. “We’re never going to win the challenge,” he said with genuine vulnerability.

Most days, this hero is upbeat and positive. He is a kind friend, optimistic; always ready to forgive. In the midst of our third round of bridge-building challenges this week, as each one increased in difficulty, he felt overwhelmed. His team had scattered, and he didn’t know what to do.

“Do you feel like you are in your comfort zone, challenge zone or panic zone?” I asked. I had an idea of what he might say.

“Panic zone!” he said, emotion coming up and out of his throat.

“What could we do to help it be less in your panic zone?” I asked. “Sometimes when I’m in my panic zone, what helps me is to just take one step at a time. What’s one thing you could do?”

Looking around the room, it was clear that our game was breaking down. Heroes felt overwhelmed. And yet, as a guide and gamemaker, I knew this was a necessary place for them to be. Over the past few bridge challenges, they had been able to use the same, comfortable model over and over again, since the challenge was small. They needed an opportunity to stretch and discover a new model. The best way? Give them a challenge SO BIG that their current model wouldn’t work anymore – which is exactly what had happened. (Business owners, can you relate?) I knew I needed to raise the energy in the room again, to help them sense some momentum to keep going.

I immediately reached in my pocket, took out my phone, and pretended to make a phone call. It was to ‘Bud the Bear’. This bridge building challenge was unique – it was issued as our friend – Bud the Bear – had reached out to our studio for help. He had been traveling in Colorado and discovered the road in front of him had collapsed. He would be stuck until he knew how to build a bridge for himself. He knew our heroes could help by building models of a bridge and sharing ideas with him.

“What’s that you say, Bud?” I spoke into my phone.

“Really!” I exclaimed. “So you’re telling me that the opening isn’t quite as wide as you thought? As long as the bridge extends for 14 inches that will work?”

“Ok. I’ll tell them. We have some good ideas coming your way, I just know!”

“Thanks, Bud. Talk soon!” I hung up the phone.

Energy immediately picked up as the challenge went from “panic zone” back to “challenge zone”. As the heroes persevered through their feelings of panic and overwhelm, they felt empowered and excited – and even discovered a new model – like using magnet tiles to create a triangle base instead of a square base, which conserved their limited supply and gave them enough tiles to reach the required distance of 14 inches. At the end, we called Bud the Bear again to celebrate!

Breakdown, when approached with a growth mindset, creativity and perseverance – leads to breakthrough.

What a valuable lesson for our heroes – and such a powerful reminder for me!

What a game can teach us about leadership

“But it’s my game!” exclaimed one hero, a six-year-old whose turn it was to be in charge of creating and leading the game for our daily “Move-It” time. The other heroes squirmed with a pained look on their faces, hoping she would listen to their feedback and tweek the rules as they had suggested.

The stillness held the tension of differing opinions. How would we continue on without everyone being on the same page and excited for the game? If she stuck her ground, the game may fall apart as a result of disinterested heroes. If she gave in out of compulsion, she may harbor resentment.

I broke the tension with a question. “What does it mean to be a leader?” I asked. “Is it so you can have your way, or is it so you can think of a game that everyone will enjoy?”

So often leadership in our world is viewed as an opportunity to control; to get our way; to have power. And yet, as our heroes discovered, a leader without a community of people bought into the vision isn’t a leader at all. Leadership is influence. Leadership happens as other’s needs are considered and cared for with a heart of service.

A lightbulb went off in our young game leader’s awareness that day. She chose to listen to her peer’s feedback. She allowed her peers to help her co-create the game – and as a result, everyone LOVED it!

Such a beautiful lesson in real-world leadership!

Failure: A Sacred Superpower

As she wrapped her arms around herself in a tight, warm hug, the biggest smile spread across her face. “I feel SO good when others listen to me – it makes me feel like a princess!”

Then, looking around, she spotted the next hero with his hand raised who was excited to share his opinion, and gently passed the peace flower to him.

Such a special culture of respect is being built where each hero has a voice and is listened to.

Yet do you know what it took to get here?

A lot of interrupting. A lot of frustration. A lot of tears. Our heroes have learned through experience how awful it feels when others aren’t listening – and they were ready this week to adopt a few more structures to our circle times in order to make them a more peaceful and enjoyable experience.

“When you have something special to share and someone interrupts you, how does that make you feel?” Mr. Chris asked.

The circle was unified in vulnerability, much like tired siblings after a squabble – who are yearning for peace and joy. “Terrible,” one commented. “Yeah – like I’m not worth much,” another shared.

“And how did today’s circle feel to you?” Mr. Chris asked, reflecting on the new structures that had been adopted.

“It was peaceful,” one shared as he put down his hand and received the flower to speak. “We were listening to each other.”

When growth happens through failure, the learning sticks. Our studio is a sacred place set apart as a training ground – a “Hero Headquarters” – where heroes are equipped to discover their calling and to change the world. It’s a safe place for heroes to experiment, reflect and learn through doing – which must include failure.

Failure is sacred. Heart-wrenching and transformational all at the same time- if we can recognize its potential and beauty.

These beautiful heroes are transforming from the inside out.

The power of a little voice

“You’re not a great captain,” our youngest hero (4 years old) earnestly remarked to our oldest hero (8 years old) during our morning circle. I had just announced that for the first time, the heroes would get to vote later that day on who their studio maintenance captains would be for next week.

“Yes, I am!” he retorted.

“No, you’re not,” the youngest continued. “You always leave and aren’t helping,” he calmly said, motioning his hands outward to show his passion.

As we moved on to the next topic, I noticed something. The feedback given from the youngest affected the oldest. Like how you take notice when there is a little rock in your shoe. Like when you find a piece of lint that keeps sticking to you, no matter how hard you try to get it off.

A little voice, when clear and strong and filled with truth, sinks deep and causes us to pause.

Oh, the beauty of our forming community. Our heroes are beginning to find their voice and discover what they value in a leader.

Yet the beauty cannot exist without pain and struggle – as these are the best teachers. In fact, our heroes are learning through experience what good leadership looks like each day during our studio maintenance time. The captains lead their small groups and get to work on their assigned jobs. Sometimes the groups are organized, working hard, and beat the timer. Sometimes they aren’t. Yet each time we sit around the circle and reflect on their experience, the groups acknowledge the habits that will help them be successful – focus and hard work. They own their mistakes and apologize to their teammates. These experiences, through the joy and disappointment, are etching character inside.

Learning to learn, learning to do, learning to be.

What a transformational journey!