I started to deeply understand listening In high school as a volunteer on a teen crisis hotline.

Clinical psychologists at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in LA led our rigorous training which focusing on the profound impact listening can have, especially for kids in crisis.  Since we ourselves weren’t trained as mental health professionals, our purpose was never to give advice, but rather just to be an ear, reflect feelings and make these teens feel heard.  Our official title was, in fact, “Listener”.

We would answer the phone with, “Hello, Teen Line” and be there to hear what was going on.   On my Wednesday night shift I would order in Thai food, hang out with friends and wait for the phones to ring.  When they did I’d be a compassionate ear for kids I never met.

I remember calls about gang violence, neglectful parenting and peer pressure. While social workers were always present to help guide our call, it was up to us to make the teen on the other end of the line feel like they had a voice.  I would go back to the “active listening” training again and again, when the temptation was to talk, I had to reflect feelings and listen.

As an actor l I learned that lesson all over again.  However, instead of anonymous teens on the other end of the phone, I had to listen in character to fellow actors.  Listening, really listening, is one of the hardest things to do authentically. In graduate school at NYU, we worked on hearing words afresh, even when we had rehearsed them dozens of times, letting their sense impact us anew each time.  We did lots of breathing exercises, Alexander Technique, Yoga and more, so that in the moment of acting we could be profoundly relaxed and present.  We were not to anticipate the next line, beat or moment.  I’ll never forget the clear break-through for me when this happened and I realized what it meant to do good work.

Listening is not merely hearing. Listening is reacting. Listening is being affected by what you hear. Listening is active.

~ Michael Shurtleff – Broadway casting director

Finally, as a parent, I find, once again, I am working on how to listen.  I’m learning (over and over) to put away my own devices, be less distracted and truly present.  With my son, Nathaniel, I realize I have to ask open-ended questions, and actively hear what’s going on.

These days I’m focusing on not interrupting or “helping” him express himself (ie correcting him), but rather letting him struggle with an idea or word.  The more I let him express, the more richly he communicates.  I’m working on letting his imaginative musings go unhindered by my jumping in with the “right” sentence structure or pronunciation.

I’m also listening for what’s going on in his life.  Sometimes, I have to be a detective and parse together snippets of information about what happened in school simply from a clue in his tone of voice.  Other times, I’ll play a game, like this funny guessing game, to feel like I can keep buoyant conversation going.  And often, the flow of information is like a spigot I don’t know how to turn off!  Listening can be especially challenging then!

So in praise of listening, I offer up this game.

It helps us drop into the moment and be mindful of our words and really hear!   The more we practice and isolate this sense, the better equipped we will be as parents – and our kids will be too – to really hear each other.  Strengthening these mindfulness muscles through play is the best way to go!

One Word Story

The game is just that you tell a story – and the serious restriction is that you can only say one word at a time.  If you haven’t tried the game, Story Clap, check that out.  The ideas of story-building that I share on that article are great to put into practice here as well.

The object is to come up with a cohesive narrative.  Adjust expectations depending on the age of the group.

  • Ages 3-5 – try to make sentences that have meaning – a subject, verb, tie it all together.
  • Ages 6-11 – make a more complex story.  In my rehearsals for a Roald Dahl play, my cast and I were coming up with an alternative ending for James and the Giant Peach just through one-word-story!

Mindfulness at Work in this Game

A while back I wrote about a silly game that boosts mindfulness where you isolate your sense of touch.  In much the same way, kids can work on mindfulness through their sense of hearing in “One Word Story”.  Below are some tips to turn this from simply a fun game you can do in the car or at a party, into a teaching tool for mindfulness:

  • Focus on the collective story

Kids have to be really dialed into each other in order for this to work.  There has to be a kind of sacrifice for the greater good of the story, in other words you have to be willing to say “boring” words in order for sentences to be told collectively.  Achieving this is gold and kids will feel it when it happens.

  • Emphasize listening

Talk about how important it is that we really hear the words that are coming right before us. If kids want to they can close their eyes so that they really focus on the words that they hear and don’t get distracted by anything else.

  • Talk to kids about staying present

Being present means not planning. Planning puts us in our heads.  As you can read about on my tips for being silly and playful the best way you can improvise is to make sure you are present.  Even if they think they are going to come up with the funniest word, it won’t be funny if it doesn’t make sense and serve the story.

Executive Functioning At Work

Impulse control –

The tendency is to say more than one word of course, or get out your whole idea, but the restriction of only being able to say one word helps them playfully practice that essential impulse control.

Working Memory –

You have to hold onto what the subject of the story is, and all the information you have.  You can also tell a story using Story Clap and then retell it using on-word-story.  In that way you also have to remember the first story and then boil it down to it’s essence to tell it again one word at a time.

Turn Taking –

Kids have to practice waiting their turn and can’t jump in when it isn’t their time to speak.  Get strong with turn-taking through play and it will be easier to do it in less fun contexts (like waiting in lines, or for things at school…real-life stuff!)

Focus and Attention –

Kids have to concentrate on the words and the whole story, staying really present, in order to have success in this game.

Variations for One Word Story

  • Play while you throw a ball back and forth.  On each word the ball gets tossed.  This helps with hand-eye coordination too.
  • Make a pose with your body on each word.
  • Pass the pulse every time you say a word to emphasize teamwork.
  • Play with “outs” – If someone says more than one word, they are out or skip a turn.

When to play

At Playdates or Parties

This is a great Birthday Party Game since it gathers all the energy of the kids and is a great gateway for more unstructured dramatic play.  If you are thinking of throwing your own kid’s party, check out this course I made just for parents hosting their own birthday party.

Getting from Here to There

I love to play this as I’m walking Nathaniel to school.  Regardless of your commute, it is a great way to turn travel into a game.  Play it as a car game or on the subway.

In Waiting Rooms

This is a great game for waiting rooms, or anytime you need to keep little bodies still and there are limited resources.

Other Activities for Mindful Listening

  • Play Story Clap
  • Count to 20 as a group (with 3 or more people):  No one has assigned numbers and you just try to go as high as you can.
  • Play the game “telephone”
  • Take a “mindful listening” walk where you take turns observing all the sounds you hear in the world.
  • Listen to mood music. Classical, jazz or celtic work well.  Kids can color as they listen and note how the music affected their art.  Or they can go deep into the mindfulness trend and use a coloring book to practice staying in the present.
  • Create a Thomas Edison tin-can phone so kids focus just on listening or speaking and can’t talk over each other.  This is a great craft and STEM activity – kids are connecting history, science and mindfulness – a winner!
  • Use walkie talkies in the same way but with more tech for older kids.
  • Use sounds to relax before bed

Enjoy “One Word Story” and all it’s variations to practice mindful listening through play!

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