Founder of Studio Creative Play and Sunturns Productions, Khahtee is something of a Park Slope celebrity. As the creative and practical force behind the Brooklyn-based enrichment program for children 18 months to 4 years, Khahtee has been instrumental in teaching an entire zip code of children, including some of Momfilter’s very own, about the importance of play during these early years of childhood. While the program loosely follows the Reggio Emilia philosophy, SCP takes an integrated and global approach to dance, painting, yoga, puppetry, sign language, music, and creative movement. The program’s greatest lesson to children—and parents—is the delicate balance of unbridled individual expression, on the one hand, and a quiet human compassion that comes from being a part of a community. Khahtee is a single mother of Ansel, 3, and while she is the most engaged parent we can imagine, she admits that sometimes it’s easier to be patient with other people’s kids. We caught up with her the other day to hear how she tackles the proverbial juggle.
Tell us a little bit about your teaching philosophy and the value of play: The heart of play at the Studio is centered upon a loving relationship as the foundation to exploring and developing creativity. Play for us is any way that we partake in imaginative expression with the child and group. At Studio we tell the children that they are always moving, even when they sleep their heart’s beat, and that their imagination keeps moving through dreams. Therefore, movement through art, sculpture, design, yoga and breathing, music, creative movement and storytelling is the focus. Studio pops with high energy and vibration, and inspires the children and teachers to live-out-loud. The counterpoint of also finding compassion for the group, others.
What have you learned since becoming a parent yourself? I’ve become humbled by some of my blaring imperfections through parenting Ansel. In surprising moments one can find themselves being more patient with other’s children. I’ve learned that it is really is much easier and way more fun to parent with the support system of an actively and creatively integrated community of peers and families. It’s really hard and lonely to be at home alone, isolated with your child.
What’s your typical weekday like? Weekend? I’d rather have the life I have than not, but I do constantly struggle with ways to simplify and become more efficient with the grand laundry list and agenda. For me the key in the parenting part and keeping my son centered and happily attended to is to give him the most first. After a a couple of hours of really engaging with Ansel , he’s usually quite agreeable to tagging along for the rest and the endless slew of distractions. While every day is a multitasking marathon, Sundays are the most mellow, not because there isn’t just as much to do, I’m just too exhausted to still cover all corners, and I find myself sometimes purposely leaving the cell phone behind as I head out to play with Ansel.
How do you incorporate play into your routine – in the morning, at dinner, at bedtime? We will often create ridiculous stories, role play, and just engage in the most goofy slapstick interaction, during the most mundane tasks, such as, loading food into the refrigerator, making the bed, or cleaning up toys and sorting laundry. And when I am just too tired, too lazy and too absent an idea, we hit the vinyl or iPod and just dance. Somehow this always snaps me out of it and I get to exercise. It’s not a science: I think I’ve learned that play is that being completely present, which always trumps props. Improvisation offers more magic than the plan. Although it’s not always possible, it is amazing how much the smallest bit of this they appreciate, and how just a tiny dose from the moment they wake up can set an upbeat and inspired mood for the day.
What advice can you give to a parent to help them keep a certain level of engagement? In other words, how can you make it interesting for yourself and expose your kids to the things you like? Pull from your musical and literary archives. Play the Bach, take out the art book, and pour through the shapes and forms with them. Give them real tools and clay and ask them to sculpt. Read them the Neruda poem at breakfast and just ask which word they just heard was their favorite – they will enjoy it through your genuine enthusiasm and engagement. I’ve seen it first hand thousands of times. Inevitably they’ll get Ring Around the Rosie and the rest just because they will as a part of this society and world.
What are some of your favorite everyday and/or special occasion rituals with Ansel? At night we say five (random number) “I love yous” each to one another – and it has also become a time where we remember our favorite parts of the day and I’ve often apologized to him for parts of the day I am less proud of as a parent.
A recent proud moment? A week ago on he offered a first unprompted apology about his behavior earlier in the day in a store that showed me how aware he was of expectations and the power of contrition.
What’s your go-to rainy-day project/activity? We go to the photos and family videos! He is once again reintroduced to some of the closest people in my life that he has only met once, and also gets to see his life in a progression of stages and events among family and friends. He has so many questions and emotions, and no one gets bored.
What items do you use again and again in projects with kids?
1. Pastels and watercolors
2. Red clay and colored popsicle sticks
3. Tear sheet collages of various subject matter
4. Real canvas(es) to paint on. It transforms the experience for even the youngest of children.
5. The most recent huge success at the Studio were the Element Jars—crystal clear empty glass jam jars with tops (typically found in bulk at hardware stores). We fill them with colored sand, pebbles, rocks, shells, water and watercolor.
What’s a quick, easy game parents can play to foster a child’s imagination that requires no props? Start a story, inflect the absurd, the surreal, the really funny but evocative, and when your child responds incredulously, invite them to contribute and take over. The narrative can spiral endlessly as you go on and on with mere stream of consciousness ideas. Use ideas and words that your child is particularly interested in at the time to buzz up their interest. You could start with something like “I have an idea! This morning after I eat I’ll put on my roller skates and fly to the moon….by noon, through 2 million clouds, after a lunch of popcorn and…” It’s a literary charades of sorts…
Do you have any unique ways of organizing at home that make your parenting life easier? I just got over feeling guilty about having a newly three-year old boy and always wanting an organized, aesthetically inspiring home. This is just me, so what is the compromise to uncluttered space. Completely minus the adequate expanse of closet space, I’ve submitted to large format baskets and wooden boxes under tables, beside the sofa, in corners, and on top of bookshelves. It works, and I can live with it! Also, on the longest wall of the hallway, approximately 20ft long, I’ve taped a roll of 4-foot tall poster paper down the entire hallway. At the end of the hall are colorful drawers on casters. The drawers are filled with all sorts of art supplies. The hallway functions as a makeshift art studio and we spend countless hours out there drawing, painting, and collaging, alone or with friends.
How do you typically entertain…adult and/or kids’ parties, and any tricks? Adults and kids altogether! Food, drink, snacks for all age groups and an open sprawl of toys, art supplies, and all access to the house for everyone. Sometimes we project random montage-like video on a wall (without sound) and play music in the background. It is a big, happy, multi-media ultra-relaxed mess, and everyone enjoys themselves thoroughly. Every minute is worth it and though clean up is longer than the party, somehow you look forward to the next one.
What’s your playlist of the moment or most recent download?
Kids at the Studio love: “Julie – O”, 4 + Four, Mark Summer, David Ying
When I’m with the kids at the Studio: “Hold My Hand” Michael Jackson (Duet with Akon)
When I’m by myself: “Gossip in the Grain” by Ray LaMontagne, a soulful, lyrical, moody dude…
Favorite children’s books? The Tin Forest, How I Learned Geography, Flyaway Katie, I Want To Paint My Bathroom Blue, My Beautiful Child, Augustus and His Smile, Roberto the Insect Architect, Harold & The Purple Crayon Series, Draw Me A Star, Metal Man, Wings…
Go-to meal? Brown rice, tofu, broccoli, tomato sauce, avocado, cheese, sprinkled with raisins and 3 olives. My son lives off of it.
Best piece of gear? The BOB Revolution Jogging Stroller – This thing functions as a practical SUV for me here in Iceberg-bound Brooklyn. Amazing quality, weight, flexibility, durability, rides the Brooklyn snow hills like a futuristic Antarctic surveying vehicle. Cool design and simple fold.
Are you a runner? And what is the importance of exercise for you? I’ve always been athletic, and I’ve always run – although, not always consistently – but there was never in a time in life prior to becoming a mother that I absolutely could not – and so this lifelong primal type of freedom, release, and private time was suddenly gone when my son arrived. Agonizing sleep deprivation seemed a small price to pay for motherhood compared to not being to run at dawn – or anytime at all during a day – or anytime soon. And as a single parent, it really is doubly more complicated to just go out and do something. It was a big hurdle to get back to something such an integral part of my physical and mental health. I bought the stroller when he turned 4 months old and counted the days until by notice of the jogging stroller disclaimer he was old enough to accompany a run at 6 months. Training my son over 4 weeks at 6 months to finally ride in peace in the cush contraption for 4 miles gave me wings and hope that so many other dire needs indefinitely put on hold might also be possible sooner than later again. And just the truth, I was a sweeter, slimmer, more playful and energetic mom for him as a result.
Tell us about your other project, Sunturns Productions: We’re currently producing the 8-part, World Creative Play DVD series and program, exploring with and featuring children and parents’ creative expression in relationship to art, the environment, movement, yoga, storytelling, sculpture, music, poetry, and design worldwide. The inspiration for the program is to take the language, philosophy, and interactivity of Studio, to a medium that can be shared throughout the world. Although the program is very contemporary, it maintains a pure, engaging, and inspiring simplicity, that is all about the hosts’ relationship with the viewer through imaginative adventure. I don’t know about the rest of them, but I channel Mr. Rogers as we produce this program. New world, new time, new adventures and Neighborhood – but the same heart, focus, and intentionality – a love of creativity, individuality, freedom, learning, children, and community.
Photos: Andrea Chu