Adult Play To Sustain Your Team

Adult Play To Sustain Your Team

Bringing some playfulness into the daily routine of our early educators can be a great way for early learning leaders to build a team that will grow with your business. In this episode, we interview Glory Ressler, Director of Education, Training & Data at Mothercraft about the importance of having fun at work and maintaining a sense of playfulness. She shares actionable tips on what child care Directors and Owners can do to prioritize some fun at work and build meaningful connections between staff.

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Episode Transcript

 Glory RESSLER:

It’s a little way of getting us to connect and lighten up. We do serious, important work but if we’re very, very serious and we’re feeling the stressors of the complexity of our work we can become rigid and shut down. And then we’re less joyful and we’re less able to be creative and innovative and problem-solvers.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Glory, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

RESSLER:

Thank you so much, Ron!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re delighted today to have on the show Glory Ressler. She’s the director of education, training and data at Mothercraft. We’re going to talk to Glory today about an important leadership topic, which is sustaining ourselves and our teams. Lovely to have you here today, Glory. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into early-childhood education and why you’re so passionate about it.

RESSLER:

Well, that’s quite a personal story, inasmuch as I didn’t start off in early learning and care or early-childhood education. I actually started off in political science. And I was working on a specialty in Chinese foreign relations but I became disillusioned with politics – oh, my goodness, I said it – and actually went back and did a minor in drama and education.

That then took me into education, particularly the wee ones. And then a few years later I actually found myself, through a series of unfortunate events, to be a single mom. And I was a single mom with a lot of education and a white woman of privilege here in Canada. And I had just a heck of a time finding adequate care for my infant daughter. And I knew that 30 years previous it had been the same situation almost exactly with my own mother who found herself widowed when I was an infant. Luckily she was able to place me in a nursery with some nuns who were quite skilled and quite loving.

But thirty years later nothing had changed in Canada and it made me angry. And it made me concerned, particularly for our immigrant newcomers or marginalized minorities because if I couldn’t find adequate care so that I could continue working, as well as pursuing my advanced degrees, what about some of the other folks who were struggling even more than I?

And I made a huge switch and I dedicated my career after that point to early learning and care [and] early-childhood education. That’s how I got into it. Very personal, with a view to social justice and the larger issues that we address in the sector.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool, thank you for sharing that story. And certainly as a dad I sometimes think to myself, “How do single mothers [and] single fathers handle all the responsibilities on their own?” It’s very challenging. And so yeah, it’s tough.

RESSLER:

It’s huge; it’s huge. And what happened, quite frankly, Ron, was that I was able to get a position – an employment position – with an agency that served at-risk [individuals]. I was not a young mom or at-risk per say but they served at-risk teen parents. And they had a policy that if there were spots available in their high-quality childcare staff could take a spot for their children.

And so I scooped up the job and it totally changed my career and my educational trajectory. Those early-childhood educators really taught me what I knew about parenting and reassured me and got both my myself and my infant daughter through quite a rough time. And I credit them for a lot of our current success, quite frankly.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool, that’s a wonderful story. And [jokingly] I’m so surprised to hear that you were disillusioned by politics.

RESSLER:

[laughs] Really?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Okay, so you’re also quite passionate about leadership. And you’ve put quite a bit of thought and consideration into some of the challenges facing leaders and teams in early-childhood education. And what are some of the findings that you’ve had through that work?

RESSLER:

For sure, I’m happy to share that. Well, I’m going to start sort of with a meta-analysis, if you will. That’s just the way that my mind works, right? I go to that larger hole first. So, basically what I was facing and what my work with my colleagues across our province here in Canada, Ontario, and in fact even the world forum delegates from around the world was that no matter where you looked – locally or far and wide – leaders in early learning and childcare were experiencing sort of opposing things simultaneously.

One: a difficulty recruiting and retaining qualified staff, while, secondly, in a position where they desperately needed more staff – never mind retain the ones they had – and staff that were happy and creative and critical thinkers and innovative and problem-solvers within challenging contexts. Sometimes the context is lower wages compared to other professions. Sometimes the context was quite severe external environmental conditions – poverty, mass migration, whatever it may be, war, those sorts of things.

But we were facing, all of us around the world, the same conundrum, if you will: How do we possibly recruit and retain qualified staff while also ensuring – despite all these uncertainties and changes and demands, whether they’re regulatory or environmental or whatever – how do we maintain a happy workforce that can be engaged fully in such a way that they’re creative and innovative and addressing some of the complex problems we’re all facing?

So I ruminated and reflected on that for quite a while and had a lot of discussion with my own team here at the Canadian Mothercraft Society. And we were batting things around like life-work balance and remaining happy at work and so on and so forth. But we could never quite master it. We were either working too hard or couldn’t figure out solutions, all kinds of those sorts of problems, right?

And then I was speaking with some colleagues and one colleague quoted something to me by… I believe, if I could mispronounce this, Sadhguru that says [paraphrased], “There is no such thing as work-life balance. It’s all life. The balance has to be within you.” And I discussed it with my teams here and we really took to that notion. If it’s all life then we need to be happy and joyful in all aspects of our life. What would it take to be more happy, more joyful, despite the complexities and uncertainties and challenges we face on the job? How are we going to do that?

And what we came up with – what we’ve been playing around with for about a year-and-a-half now, and I’ve been presenting on and embedding in my own leadership training programs and consultations – is this notion that we’ve lost our playfulness as serious professionals serving children.

And it’s ironic because we understand now the critical importance of play to learning and development among children. But we seem to besmirch it when we grow up and put on our fancy pants a bit. And it took the joy out of the work. It actually reinforced the stress. Does that make sense to you?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yes, it makes a lot of sense. I actually really love that quote that you reiterated there around “no such thing as work-life balance, just life,” because I think that’s a concept that’s really catching on more broadly. And one of the things that – I’m pretty passionate about this, as well – is that there’s a lot of stereotypes out there about millennials.

But one of the things I would say that I’ve certainly valued about millennials in the workplace is they do have more of that view. And they’re looking for something in a job, in a career that’s more than just work and trying to find work life balance. They want to get value and be happy at their job. And I think that kind of ties into sort of the timeliness of this conversation as well when we’re employing more and more millennials.

RESSLER:

I agree entirely. And we kind of specialize in excellence in partnering and leadership and collaboration here at Mothercraft. And so our approach to the difference between someone my age – which I will not tell you how old I am, nor your listeners, but I’m older – we really value the diversity of experiences. So we weren’t ones to actually pooh-pooh the millennials’ different approach.

I thought about it a long time and I also reflected on some of the comments of my own children who are now grown and gone, far grown and grown. But I remember at one point my youngest daughter – who I guess would be considered a millennial, she’s 26 – saying to me, “I never want to work as long and as hard as you do because it takes a toll on you and on family life.”

And that made me realize that the millennials are onto something here. We should, in fact, be able to make an important contribution through our work. And no work is perfect. But we should be happy at work. We should have joy at work with each other and in the work that we’re doing. And in an environment where you may not be able to offer more money – which is quite common in early learning and care around the globe – a joyful workplace is a very enticing thing to offer. Very inticing.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s a fair point. It’s actually pretty insightful point because there’s not that many workplaces out there where, in theory, you could provide that same level of joyfulness and playfulness as in an early-childhood environment.

RESSLER:

Exactly. And it’s not just… I mean, in my case now is that I oversee [the] Mothercraft College of Early Childhood Education and our community data group. My staff no longer works directly with children so they don’t even get the infusion or the injection of joy of direct service delivery with the kids. So, what the heck and who are we going to do?

And so that made me think about, in other contexts, where early-childhood educators are working with the kids. But when they start to work with each other at that team level – that organizational level, that program level – they lose the joy. And, of course, my own staff not working directly with children, how do we bring the joy?

And that made me reflect on the fact that we besmirch and disparage, as adults, the value of play. But it brings the same benefits to us when done appropriately. Look, I’m not saying we should all play Duck Duck Goose at the team meeting. You know what I’m saying, Ron? But when it’s done appropriately as a part of professional practice it really injects spirit and energy and passion and opens up creativity among teams.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

So, if it’s not Duck Duck Goose at the team meeting – which actually sounds pretty fun – but if it’s not that…

RESSLER:

It could be fun! It’s true, you’re right, you’re absolutely right.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

… then what would adult play look like at work?

RESSLER:

For sure. So, I’m just going to give you… I mean, it’s open to creativity, but I’m going to give you some examples of how we’ve actually implemented it here in my own division at Mothercraft. So, we have a front office, as most places do. And on it is a scheduling board and with everyone’s names. And it’s a means of knowing always who’s in the building, for security purposes, etc. And beside everyone’s name is a black magnet, a button and you move it to the in or the out position, right?

Well, we took in this notion of how to be playful, as we’re also professional. We took it upon ourselves to actually decorate our buttons. So everyone’s button is decorated for something they feel represents them. And when we really need to sort of cut some of the stress we might mischievously, on purpose, mess up the buttons so that you’re forced to go and find out who now has your original button and negotiate a swap-back. It’s a distraction – a fun distraction.

It’s a little way of getting us to connect and lighten up. We do serious, important work but if we’re very, very serious and we’re feeling the stressors of the complexity of our work we can become rigid and shut down and then we’re less joyful and we’re less able to be creative and innovative and problem-solvers.

So, other sorts of things that we like to do is we have little inspirational quote jars and we have a fun, wacky build-your-own-fortune-cookie book. And we select those kinds of things. We also… so, these are very low-cost things because in the main we’re early-childhood educators. We are used to creating things for the children to play with. So we’ve created a little furry mascot. And we, out of paper, change the mascots facial expression and mysteriously move it from office to office or location to location, one-on-one. We do all kinds of things like this.

For those teams that have the opportunity and the capacity to spend a couple of dollars – and you don’t have to spend a lot – you can also do things like a team-building event. We recently did a scavenger hunt. We took a little time off and we did a scavenger hunt. We also try very regularly to check in with each other and joke around a bit before we start into the serious agenda items on our team meetings.

It’s really about creating an atmosphere where folks are relaxed; they feel connected and accepted; they feel like they can be themselves; they can communicate openly. And then the creativity flies, both in terms of what they need to achieve in the programs and the services but also in terms of how we engage with each other and stay open to learning from each other and to appreciating the differences between us as a mode of strength instead of a problem. I’ve rambled a bit there, I realized. Was that helpful?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

No, that’s very helpful. And so part of my role as the host of the Preschool Podcast is to be the devil’s advocate. And so I’m going to play that role and say, “I have this child care program and the cost of staff is really expensive. And I’m worried about productivity of my staff if they’re playing these games.” What is your response to that viewpoint?

RESSLER:

Well, I will say this, and it’s based on my own experience because this isn’t a strictly researched piece of work – at least not yet. If you trust your staff and you give them a little bit of boundary time or activity that is a bit more playful in that more adult way it does not make them less productive. It makes them more productive and more connected and passionate about the work they’re doing for and with you.

So, now I have to tell everyone to go home at the end of the day. And it doesn’t have to be big things. And you can control it if you need to check it out. So, for example: In the lunchroom I started off by just providing some adult coloring books and nice pencil crayons and a puzzle or two. So, that doesn’t necessarily impact anyone. They’re only looking at it on their breaks or on their lunch. And then I built in a small sort of icebreaker exercise that was a bit fun for everyone at the beginning of team meetings.

So, any supervisor or director owner – whatever the case may be – can actually make it very small and boundaried, if they’re worried. But I do find that I’ve not had to worry. It hasn’t been about they’re all playing games and changing their buttons at all. It’s usually that I need to remind folks, “Hey, it’s been a tough couple of weeks. We all looked fairly tired and stressed. How about everybody bring in something tomorrow and we’ll have potluck lunch together?” Or, “How about everybody picks the quote to reenergize you?” It can be very small things. They don’t go wild. And I think that’s because as adults we disparage play, which is kind of ironic given that we realize it’s so important for children.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s to really kind of err on the side not being so playful.

RESSLER:

That’s right!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

So, it’s almost like you have to be thoughtful and proactive about it to try and make it happen.

RESSLER:

You do. If you just think about how do we talk about play in the adult context, it’s being a player or it’s playing martyr or it’s playing games, as if you’re a manipulating sort of a person. We don’t understand the importance of play for adults. Now, we can in our personal lives go and do what we love to do, which is play our hobbies – canoeing, whatever, knitting, it doesn’t matter. I’m just saying to have it so boundaried we only have rest and relaxation and rejuvenation on our personal time. [The fact that] we never bring that to work is something that I think is doing us a disservice.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and I think there is a growing set of research out there that does corroborate some of your points about productivity increasing with these types of activities more and more.

RESSLER:

Think of Google and Amazon, right? They’ve got their finger on it. They’ve got all kinds of ways to play, if you will. Whether it’s segways or video games or whatever the case but they build it. Now, in early learning and care most of us don’t have those kinds of resources to do it at that level. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t start to build in a little bit of that into the culture so that everyone relaxes a bit more, smiles a bit more, laughs a bit more, connects a bit more and mitigates the negative effects of stress so that we are more productive and innovative and creative.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Totally, and that’s something I’m a big proponent of in early-childhood education, is we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You mentioned companies like Google and Amazon in call it the more business or tech world and they’ve spent who knows how much money and resources to come to the conclusion that play at work is a good thing for everybody. And so we shouldn’t feel like we need to reinvent the wheel and we can look to case studies like that and apply them in our world, which is, like we talked about before, really the opportunity to be the most joyful workplace where we can be with children who haven’t lost that passion for play like we sometimes do as we get older.

RESSLER:

I’m quite radical in that I do say to the folks that I’m working with – not only my own staff –things like, “How can you possibly facilitate and support play-based learning in children if deep inside of you, you think you’ve got to eradicate play by the time you grow up? How can you possibly?”

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and I think that’s one of the biggest pieces of this is… so, the one side is, as a teacher educator or someone working in early-childhood education for your own stress levels, and then the other part, though, is the impact that that has on the children that you’re around, right? Because certainly if there’s one thing I’ve learned with my son, he can tell what you’re feeling when he’s around you.

RESSLER:

Oh, yeah. You’ve hit it.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, it comes across.

RESSLER:

They’ll sniff it out. If you’re fibbing about the play business they will sniff it out, those children. And you know, leaders, they know their staff and they know what they can tolerate. I mean, here at one point I was doing what I called “random director dance break”. I would send out a high-priority message in the morning and say, “Okay, at lunch, 12:15 to 12:20, we’re going to dance out the stress!” Anybody interested, come to my office!” Right?

And some people engaged and some people didn’t. But it was an opportunity for me to learn, “What does my team need in order to loosen up a bit and feel a bit more playful on the job? What do they need?” And I’ve learned and built from that. But leaders will know what their teens need. And if they don’t, they can ask, “How can we have a little bit more fun at our team meetings or after work or before work or whatever the context may be?” Ask them or try out things. Permit them.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Even just giving them the opportunity to express what they think is very important.

RESSLER:

Yeah, yeah, I agree.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Now Glory, we could go on talking about this for a long time because this is a very interesting topic that you’re passionate about and I’m actually also very passionate about. I’m just trying to think of what games I can go do with my team now after we get off this interview!

RESSLER:

Yeah, and it doesn’t even have to be a game. It can be just a silly little thing. I actually gave everyone recently a tiny bottle of bubbles and that tiny little hand-clapper that they can they can blow bubbles at each other and clap with this little plastic plapper when their colleagues do brilliant things. Simple; very playful.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, a good example of another small thing. I think, actually, our one of our teams today is going to go do a scavenger hunt for fun!

RESSLER:

I’m so excited for you! I hope they have an amazing time! And I know they’re going to come back rejuvenated and make HiMama even better than it already is.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, you know what, I can just picture their faces like running around, smiling, doing the scavenger hunt. They’re going to love it; they’re going to be so rejuvenated.

RESSLER:

And post those pictures! Post those pictures of the gorgeous and funny faces! We love funny pictures of us with silly glasses and all kinds of silliness, just for a moment, just for a brief one.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

So, sadly we’re running out of time, Glory. Tell us how we can get in touch with you if we’d like to learn more about how you’ve applied some of the things we’ve talked about today in your programs.

RESSLER:

Well, I would encourage any listener who might want to learn a bit more to send me an e-mail at Glory.Ressler@Mothercraft.org.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wonderful, and I would encourage people to do so because Glory’s done some amazing stuff with her team over at Mothercraft. And we really appreciate in value your time with us on the Preschool Podcast today, Glory.

RESSLER:

Thank you, Ron, my pleasure. All the best, and have fun!

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!

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