He walks in everyday and after checking things out, he usually ends up at a table settling down with crayons and his favorite coloring book: Fisher Price Little People, Letter and Shapes. There he will remain for the better part of an hour. He hands me his coloring with his name carefully printed across the bottom. He watches as I peg it up on the bulletin board next to his other colorings. Then he counts the colorings with his name on them – that was #5! He’s happy about that and heads back to work on his next one. How old do you think this child is? 5 or 6? No. He’s 13. This is a tough kid who’s known at other programs to be one of the more difficult kids with behavior problems. He has a lot of challenges in his young life, but for a few hours every afternoon he gets to come and have a quiet space all his own and just do whatever he wants to do, maybe some of the things he didn’t have a chance to do when he was younger.
On the back table I put out a bucket with dry cornstarch, a cup of water, some spoons and paint. I was thinking of this activity for the younger children but they didn’t come today. Towards the end of the afternoon the older boys, after eyeing the table, asked to do the activity. “Sure!” I say. We sit together and start mixing and stirring and feeling as the corn starch changes consistency. We add some paint and swirl the color in. The boys are mesmerized, amazed, laughing. We sit and play together for a long time – these boys – on the edge – wanting to be like the older teenagers, but still so child-like under the tough exterior. I saw them loving this opportunity to just play without anyone watching, no outside pressures. For this moment they can enjoy and be the kids they need to be.