Monday, July 18, 2011

Free to be...boys.

Remember Free to Be You and Me? The record album and book, created in 1972 by the Ms. Foundation for Women, was a collection of stories and songs designed to show boys and girls that they could break free of traditional gender expectations.

Rosie Greer reassured us that it's all right for boys - even NFL stars - to cry. Alan Alda taught us that sometimes boys want to play with dolls. And Marlo Thomas sang about how Mommies can actually hold down a job.

It was the old switcheroo technique. Supply kids with narratives that completely reversed traditional gender expectations in order to blow their minds and set them free. Encourage girls to be more like boys. Encourage boys to be more like girls. Stir well and liberate.

The "swim against the stream" message of Free to Be You and Me was pretty groundbreaking at the time, when images of gender in kids' books and popular culture stuck to the narratives we roll our knowing, liberal eyes at today.

But 40 years later (Wait. Forty? Are you kidding me?), Ben doesn't have to be convinced by a folk-pop soundtrack that girls can be strong. He sees plenty of female characters wielding swords, braving monsters, saving the day and their male counterparts. He sees men expressing emotion and tenderness, in pop culture and in his life.

And now Free to Be's approach of making boys better by making them more like girls seems, well, quaint.

Phil Weglarz thought so too. He's a therapist here in the Bay Area with an interest in using creativity and play in his work with kids.

Playing with his nephews, shooting homemade remakes of Star Wars movies, made him think about the positive aspects of the forms of expression to which many boys are drawn.

They like to explore power relationships in black and white/good and evil terms. They like dramatic action with elements of danger, aggression, and destruction. Sometimes, things are dark and scary, or loud and chaotic. And some research suggests that boys actually benefit - developmentally - from this type of play.

He also saw that in many children's arts and drama programs, these narratives were viewed by the often female, Free to Be-influenced instructors as disruptive and unhealthy. For a boy to "express himself" and "be creative" was great as long as it was "nice."

Phil wanted to create a program that would allow boys to express themselves through the stories and ideas that interested them, and where he, as a teacher and therapist, could funnel those impulses into fostering self-confidence, cooperation, teamwork, respect for differences.

So he created Active Imagination camps and workshops. Ben's been participating now for several months and just finished Phil's first summer camp.

It's a perfect fit for boys who love imaginative play, who might not be as into team sports as some of their peers, or whose creative expression needs a little more latitude than formal music and arts programs sometimes allow.

And I think you will not be surprised when I tell you that lots of the boys are on the quirky side.

In the Active Imagination program, boys learn about restraint and self-control while they stage mock battles, they learn about their bodies and their breath as they do yoga in preparation for their transformation into superheroes, they learn about collaboration and cooperation as they make movies about defeating villains.

It's a place where they can feel safe being their own unique selves, wherever they happen to land on the continuum of gender - or neurological - expression.

"Every boy in this land grows to be his own man..."

And that's exactly what Free to You and Me was all about in the first place.

One of the AWESOME videos from Active Imagination Camp for Boys. Ben is the one in the red kimono and the snorkeling mask.