Saturday, September 25, 2010

Fairness And Democracy In Action

A couple days ago my Australian colleagues Sherry and Donna at Irresistible Ideas For Play Based Learning posted about reading The Little Red Hen and how they augment it with finger puppets knitted to look just like the characters from the book. We don't have the finger puppets, but we do have the book, so we read it in the Woodland Park 3-5's class. Now, I'm sure the puppets would help with this, but I always forget between readings just how challenging the message of this story is to some preschoolers.

For those of you who don't know this old folk tale, the Little Red Hen does all the household work, while the Goose, Cat, and Dog (in our version) each decline to help out, saying, "Not I," each time she asks. When she finds a grain of wheat to plant, her lazy housemates continue to say "Not I" as she does the work of tending, harvesting, threshing, milling and finally baking a loaf of bread. The big finish is that when the Hen asks the others if they will help her eat the freshly baked bread, they all say "I will," only to find that the long-suffering Hen has decided that since she did all the work, she gets to eat all the bread.

As I read this story last week, some of the kids were moved to remark, "That's not fair," each time the lazy characters said, "Not I." Others commented, both proudly and maybe a little defensively, something along the lines of, "I help at my house." 

(Sena was one of the kids who let us know that she's a helper. I know for a fact, it's true. Her mother Ann wrote me a while back to say that as she brought water to the table for her big sister Ava, she said, "Here's your martinis dry.")

But the concept of fairness is not always an easy one for preschoolers. When we got to the end of the story, with the Little Red Hen eating all the bread herself, there arose a chorus of "That's not fair!" and "She should share with them!" and "They'll be hungry!" I took a moment to clarify the moral of the story, trying to get them to identify with the poor overworked Hen, but I got push back in the form of, "Maybe they were too tired to help" and "Maybe they were too busy to help." I'm guessing that many of the kids saw the Hen as a parental figure and the others as children, rather than it being a household of peers as the story is intended. And yes, it would be something of an outrage for a parent to withhold bread from a child, even a lazy one. Whatever the case, the point was missed by some of the children. That's probably true of most things we try to teach about social relations, which is why we have to revisit these kinds of things over and over, from many different angles, during the course of years, before it sinks in.

Really learning about fairness takes lots of practice. Board games are a fun way to work on those skills. I was fascinated last week while watching this group of boys playing the game Barnyard Bingo.

They were a self-selected group including two 3-year-olds and two 4-year-olds.

The centerpiece of the game is a barn that dispenses colored "coins" one at a time. The official idea is to take turns removing the coins and matching them by color to your own "fence." The first one to collect all 3 coins is the "winner." 

These guys were playing it their own way. Instead of starting the game with the barn full of all the coins, each boy held the 3 coins that matched his fence. 

When his turn came around, he would insert his 3 coins, then remove them one by one, before passing the barn along to the next player. There is no "winner" in this version -- the whole point being to take turns dropping coins into the top, then removing them from the bottom.

There were no adults involved in this game, and yes, there were some conflicts over whose turn it was, how long turns should take, and even which direction they were going around the table. There were flares of anger and a bit of grabbing, but I am proud of how these boys worked through their challenges mostly with words. (I am equally proud of all us adults who stayed out of it.)

But there were kindnesses as well, and concessions, and giving up on strongly held opinions for the good of the game. No matter how many rules about fairness we make, they remain nothing more than aspirational statements in the absence of a fundamental understanding of fairness: these are the skills necessary for every day fairness in the world beyond the benevolent dictatorship of family.

Looking at these pictures, I feel blessed to have been witness to this moment of preschool fairness and democracy in action.

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Floor Pie said...

I think the illustration at the end of that particular Little Red Hen book kind of obscures the moral. The hen looks so self-satisfied and meanly glad. She has her back turned to the other animals who have very sad looks on their faces. Doesn't one have a tear on its cheek? I wasn't surprised that our perceptive, empathetic preschoolers picked up on that. (Isn't it sweet that they consistently sided with the underdog throughout the story?)

I've seen versions of the Little Red Hen story where it's the Little Red Hen and her chicks who do all the work while the other barnyard animals say "not I." So in the end, Ms. Hen still shares the bread with somebody.

Chrissy said...

"The Little Red Hen" was our theme story yesterday! My kindergartners are very concerned that things be FAIR; they didn't have a problem with the hen's decision.

I love to see students' reactions to "Stone Soup". A few pages into the story, someone will realize that the boy is tricking the woman. The class consensus is usually divided on whether this worked out well for all or if the boy was a flat-out liar!

Have a great year!

Jason, as himself said...

So do you ever say to them, "Well, life isn't fair."

I'll bet you don't.

Launa Hall said...

Have you seen It's My Birthday by Helen Oxenbury? A child makes a birthday cake, and a variety of anthropomorphic animals contribute ingredients. At the end, they eat the cake together. It's the anti-Little Red Hen. It's delightful, and the illustrations are lovely.

Kelly "LRH" Love said...

You and your students have inspired me yet again:

Kelly "Too Early for Comments" Love said...


Suzanne said...

Fairness is a complicated concept. Sometimes it means everyone should get something according to their need or want and sometimes it means we need to stand up for ourselves against the desires of others. I think the fact that some of your kids were looking for reasons *why* the other animals didn't help means they're already on the beginning of the path to balance between the two.

Anonymous said...

When the children though that maybe some of the other animals were too tired or too busy too help I am not so sure they did miss the point. I am learning a lot about non-violent communication. I am thinking that maybe the children have it right and we are doing a disservice by "revisiting it over until it sinks in" in the way most adults think it should - ie. they were just being lazy and so I am not going to share. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from these children and take the time to ask and connect with others before automatically jumping to our conclusions.

Love your blog by the way. I am a homeschooling mom and you share so many really neat ideas. I am always so inspired after seeing some of the things your group does.

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