Play Stuff Blog

Playing with Sidewalk Chalk Brings Us Together While We’re Apart  

Our Kids Washable Sidewalk Chalk, 1997, gift of Marcia Reese. The Strong, Rochester, New York. Museums, schools, gyms, and malls are closed. Basketball games, poetry readings, dance recitals, and playdates are canceled. As a global pandemic casts a shadow over our daily lives, so many of the places that we see as playgrounds—including The Strong itself—are temporarily closed. But, as I was reminded this past week, play persists. A box of sidewalk chalk showed me firsthand the important role of play, and the ways in which it connects us with each other, during challenging times.

Driveway chalk drawings and messages, 2020. Courtesy of the author.

In psychiatrist’s Stuart Brown’s book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, he argues that our inclination to create art is the result of the impulse to play, and that art is part of a “deep, preverbal communication that binds people together.” This “belonging,” he writes, “is an outgrowth of early social play among kids.” In other words, our desire to creatively express ourselves and connect with others through art is, at its most basic level, play. That’s why when a neighbor posted a message on our neighborhood Facebook page encouraging all our children to “chalk our driveways for everyone to enjoy on our lonely family walks,” my family saw it as an invitation to play.

Closeup of driveway chalk maze, 2020. Courtesy of the author. My seven-year-old daughter began by outlining larger-than-life letters to spell out HAVE A GREAT DAY! My five-year-old son worked diligently creating a yellow chalk maze that made me chuckle as I wondered if I could discern any sort of solution. They covered the black pavement in multicolored rainbows, stars, and a sun. They colored their letters in shades of green, blue, red, yellow, and purple, saving the “Y” and “!” for a special stripe treatment. This deep play captured their attention, and, for the moment, created a respite from worries about missing school and their friends.

After picking up, we watched from inside and called out from our front door as friends and neighbors stopped at our and our neighbors’ driveways to draw pictures, sign their names, and leave their own messages of encouragement. That afternoon, we walked around the neighborhood doing the same. Along the way we encountered children and adults sketching chalky illustrations of revving race cars, soaring rocket ships, blooming flowers, giant bugs, a lively cityscape, and my personal favorite, Pac-Man. They also wrote bright messages of hope, such as “WE LOVE OUR FRIENDS,” “Stay Safe,” “BETTER DAYS AHEAD,” and “SPREAD KINDNESS!”

Jumbo Black Board & Sidewalk Chalk, 1990, gift of Marcia Reese. The Strong, Rochester, New York. As I write this, I recognize that I’m privileged to live in a community where there’s enough separation between our homes to allow my children and neighbors to play outside while maintaining a safe social distance. But this is just one of many outlets to spark play, creativity, and connection. One doesn’t need a driveway to draw, paint, or color a picture. And, if possible, take a photo of your artwork and share it with friends by text or over social media. Play has the potential to energize and restore us. And whether with our neighbors across the street or across the globe, it connects us to others, and allows us to express ourselves in ways that remind us all to look forward to “better days ahead.”