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.