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Life is good's chief Playmaker inspires faculty, staff on Professional Development Day

March 28, 2014

Steve Gross speaks to a crowd of hundreds of CCRI faculty and staff at Professional Development Day on March 28. Steve Gross speaks to a crowd of hundreds of CCRI faculty and staff at Professional Development Day on March 28.

When keynote speaker Steve Gross, founder and chief Playmaker at the Life is good Kids Foundation, took to the stage at the Community College of Rhode Island's 12th annual Professional Development Day, he addressed a roomful of faculty and staff sitting in an ordinary amphitheater. By the time he was done, however, the transformation of the venue was palpable: It had become an "O'playsis."

The clever portmanteau was just one of many key phrases and concepts that Gross, who is just as animated and engaging as his title portends, shared with the audience that morning. Though many may associate the Life is good brand with its popular and uplifting apparel and accessory lines, it turns out that, as Gross said, the T-shirts are just a vehicle for the company's message.

Gross, a social worker by training, is an ambassador for the company's nonprofit arm, which seeks to help children overcome poverty, violence and illness. The Playmakers, a term further described by Gross as "People who make things happen in life at pivotal moments," who make up the nonprofit work with teachers, social service groups, social workers and other professionals and volunteers to replace pain with play.

With a noticeable spring in his step, Gross paced the floor of the Bobby Hackett Theater underneath projections of his presentation, outlining four points to begin his talk: The trait of playfulness may be the single most important trait there is and it's the least appreciated and valued; fear really can destroy playfulness if we let it; playfulness isn't about what you do, but rather the spirit and intention with which you do everything you do; and that playfulness must start within you before you can genuinely share it with the world.

He said internal control (a sense of safety and stability), the ability to actively engage and be mindful, the ability to build social connections and a true sense of joy all intersect to create playfulness. In institutions such as schools and neighborhoods and even corporations, Gross said, this creates an "O'playsis." And although Gross's message – that all things in life, particularly one's childhood, education and work, are made better by supportive surroundings and a joyful attitude – was simple and seemingly commonsensical, it often took on moments of profundity, and always drove home the value of hope.

Gross cited statistics from both the CDC and the American Journal of Preventative Medicine that warned that exposure to adverse experiences was the most significant health crisis facing young children today. Further neurological evidence for the long-lasting effects of fear and trauma – such as those that children in unstable environments experience on a daily basis – could be found in studies Gross presented by psychologist and neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp, who noted that depriving rats of an enriching and safe environment across their lifespan drastically and adversely affected their brain development.

"And you can't play and be terrified at the same time," said Gross, relating that Panskepp also discovered that exposing the rats to a traumatic stimulus – the scent of a predatory cat, in this case – caused damage that was not ameliorated once that stimulus was removed from the room. "When a young mammal is exposed to overwhelming stressor at a critical time in development, their play development changes forever," said Gross. He said he shared this with a preschool teacher in Mississippi where the organization worked after Hurricane Katrina. "She looked at me and said, 'Let me tell you something, young man. Those rats ain't never had a teacher like me."

Throughout his talk, Gross peppered heart-wrenching examples of what pain and fear can do to a child alongside anecdotes of the value of optimism in combating that damage. With stories culled from a life lived out on the front lines of an effort to creatively bridge some of the opportunity gaps that happen in the face of life's cruelties, reaching as globally as the post-earthquake environment of Haiti and as locally as his own home, where he adopted a young man whose birth family couldn't afford him that valuable sense of security, Gross's talk was clearly inspiring to the members of the CCRI community gathered to take it in.

He was careful to underscore his message with the notion that optimism doesn't mean that things are perfect, nor does it encourage turning a blind eye to often discouraging and discomfiting realities. Rather, Gross said that being a true practitioner of optimism, joy and, ultimately, play, we could make a difference in our own life and the lives of those around us.

"She's right," he said of that Mississippi teacher. "We're not rats. We share some of the same DNA, but we have a much stronger limbic brain and work our behinds off intentionally to help people feel safe enough, strong enough, comfortable enough so they can engage, connect, explore and play again. That's our job as Playmakers.

"And the college is at its best when it's an O'playsis: an oasis of playfulness. A student comes and feels safe here, and thinks they can do this. They feel engaged and interested. They have connections. They start to feel that joy. That's what brings out the best in people," he said.

Steve Gross speaks with members of the CCRI community after his talk.

After the talk, English department faculty members Gina Santoro and Holly Susi collected their notes as they rose to head off to other Professional Development Day sessions, clearly energized by what they'd heard.

"I'm going to bring a lot of this back to my classroom," Santoro said, sharing that in one of her classes, students were clearly making personal connections to a traumatic story that they were studying.

Susi echoed Santoro's statement, adding that Professional Development Day itself is an invaluable resource for the faculty and staff of the college. "Over the course of the semester, you can lose sight of what we're here for. It's important to take a breath and refresh ourselves as we head into the final weeks of the semester."

"Professional Development Day fosters togetherness and connection," added Dean of Health and Rehabilitative Sciences Maureen McGarry. "It's an excellent opportunity to network around a central, cohesive theme," she said, calling Gross's keynote "superb."


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