Saturday, January 22, 2011

This Is A Complicated Thing

I've written about this before, but I really do want to know why male primates show a strong preference for toy cars when it comes to choosing with what to play, but no one knows. I haven't even seen a credible sounding theory. Why wheeled vehicles? It doesn't make sense. What did caveman boys play with before the invention of the wheel? Whatever the case, I'm sure the wheel was invented by a tinkering child long before it was adapted for "useful" purposes. 

The universality of play among children across all cultures throughout human history, and indeed across mammal and bird species, indicates that a period of play is adaptive and necessary. That it's the primary way by which we learn in our youth is really, ultimately, why the so-called "education reformers" will fail in their efforts to turn learning into work (although that doesn't mean they can't damage an entire generation of children if parents and teachers don't continue to push back). As the great psychologist Karl Groos wrote:

The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a period of youth because he must play.

Through a quirk of demographics, I've wound up this year with a Pre-K class (my oldest group) of all boys: nine of them. Some are more motivated by cars than others, but they all share to one degree or another their vervet and rheus brothers' preference for playing with cars. If play is essential and cars are universal, then the boys are clearly learning something very important from this kind of play. I can only assume that the survival of our species is dependent upon these boys learning the basic concepts of motion, density, gravity, friction, and momentum, and naturally, they are learning important social skills when they play together, practicing for adult roles when they engage in dramatic play, and bonding as friends over their shared passion, all of which are clearly important.

In the series of photos with which I've illustrated this post, you can see I've used their interest in cars to extend our MLK color mixing experiments from the prior week. Boys aren't always interested in sit-down art projects, but this wasn't one of those times. (I buy a lot of these plain wooden cars from Discount School supply. I find them useful for all kinds of purposes.)

I don't need to know why, but do want to know.

What I really need to know these days, however, is why boys are so prone to be attracted to violent play. The standard explanation is that they are socialized into it, although I've seen surveys and studies that show gun play and other forms of violet play among boys is pretty universal (although I know of nothing that shows it crossing into the animal kingdom). I'm also not generally disturbed by boys who play superheroes, or soldiers, or pirates, but our 9 boys together, our oldest students, the guys who are looked up to, have begun to feed off one another in a way that is starting to make even me feel like we need to take some action to re-direct their play. It can get pretty intense and, at times, overwhelm some of the younger children who find themselves caught up in it.

It's a delicate balance we need to walk, I think. None of these boys, of course, are actually violent. They are not doing anything "bad" or wrong. In fact, it reminds me very much of my own boyhood when we used to play the same games, big and little boys together, "shooting" and "punching" and saving the world. I also remember it becoming too intense for me at times. I'd come home scared, nervous, and full of disturbing ideas. I'd revert for a few days of playing with my cars or stuffed animals or coloring books, but ultimately I'd always go back.

On Tuesday, we revisited MLK, the great man of peace. I retold them the story, going back to slavery, emphasizing how angry it made people feel and how many of them turned to violence. Then, as I showed them a particularly heroic and patriotic illustration of MLK, I explained how he taught us to fight with words not fists, with love not hate. I then brought up my concerns, emphasizing that some of the younger children, sometimes, were feeling afraid at preschool. They all agreed that they didn't want their friends to feel afraid.

I tried to let them direct the conversation from there as we discussed ways to deal with "bad guys" which quickly became a discussion of Batman, Star Wars, and other fictional depictions of good vs. evil. I responded, each time, "But that's not real, Martin Luther King was real," pointing to the picture I still held. "In the real world," I said, "Words are better than fists."

I'm not sharing this as an example of the right thing to do, but it is what came to me in the moment. And some of the boys even pushed back, insisting that indeed "Star Wars is real. I saw it." (The media is clearly a very potent drug in this question; one we as adults in children's lives must strive to counteract.) But they were engaged. They were sitting together, eyes forward, hands off one another. Most of them said, "Pretend," when I listed examples of popular heros, asking, "Is that real or pretend?" Charlie L. suggested that we could hug or stroke people instead of hitting them. 

I don't want to lecture kids -- that never works -- and I certainly don't want to make them ashamed. It's about empathy, I guess, a notoriously challenging thing to teach young children. I don't want them to stop fantasizing about these heroic figures, but rather to be aware of how their play, especially when it's all 9 of these virtual brothers together, is impacting others. I don't expect them to suddenly become a classroom full of MLKs, but I do want them to understand that in the real world we don't solve our problems with fists or guns.

I suspect that this tendency toward what we label violent play, like the proneness of males to choose to play with cars, is an adaptive trait with roots deeply sunk into our evolutionary past. And just like we don't really know the source of the attraction to wheels, we don't understand the source of the attraction to "violent" play. I know I barely made a dent last Tuesday, but we have 4 more months together. This is a time when they need our adult helping hands.

At the end of the day on Tuesday, about 15 minutes after we'd wrapped up our conversation, I sang our "goodbye song." As parents chatted, some of the boys began to thrust their hands at one another, violently, shouting, "Shock!" They were excited, beaming, alive. It looked like a lot of fun. I've known these boys for a long time. They don't want their classmates to feel afraid. They are gentle, loving boys. They are going to grow into gentle, loving men. 

This is a complicated thing.

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Miss Elizabeth said...

this has always puzzled me too- about the cars. last year I had a class of mostly boy OBSESSED with trains (and cars, but mostly trains). Cars, trucks, monster trucks, the girls never seem to play with them, only extremely rarely. It is the only thing that doesn't seem to cross genders very well. I've had boys who love to wear dresses in the dress up area and love to play with baby dolls (recently a boy "called the police" to arrest the "baby" because it wouldn't stop crying). I guess as much as I wonder why boys are so interested in things that have wheels I wonder why girls aren't.

Danielle said...

I've understood "violent" superhero play to be an outlet for children who are trying to understand what they have watched on tv and/or (unfortunately) have witnessed in real life. By re-enacting it they are making it less scary. (?) I think it also provides practice in decision making and gives them opportunity to be in control. So much of children's lives are controlled by adults - the what, where and when - that this type of play is attractive because it makes children feel powerful. What are your thoughts on this?

In my class when I observe this type of play (superhero and shooting, etc) I remind my kids of the rule - We must ask someone if they want to play. Do they want to pretend fight? Or be shot at by a pretend gun?

When they "shoot" at me, I say, "Please don't do that. Guns are very scary. I don't like to be scared." I figure providing the language used to describe my (their) feelings might help them.

Additionally, I try to expand their play. I say:
- Where does ____ live?
- Does ____ have a mommy? daddy? brothers? sisters?
- Is ____ hungry? What are ____'s favorite foods?

Or if someone gets "shot" or "dies" I wonder aloud - "Is there a doctor to help?! Someone needs to take him where he can get better!" This usually leads someone to come running - "I can be the doctor!" lol...

I also ask them about whether the bad guys can change into good guys. It challenges their thinking, I like to believe. Anywho, I could go on and on...

Curious to know if you've ever read Nancy Carlsson-Paige's book titled Taking Back Childhood. I found it very enlightening regarding play and the role media has on it.

Teacher Tom said...

Kimberly had trouble posting this comment, so I'm copying it over from Facebook:

"I've understood "violent" superhero play to be an outlet for children who are trying to understand what they have watched on tv and/or (unfortunately) have witnessed in real life."

My response is that I am a coop parent of one of the boys and my daughter is now in kindergarten having graduated from the same coop. I normally would have agreed with the above statement, but my children watch the same tv, live in the same house, and my daughter does not behave in the same way.

Teacher Tom said...

@Danielle . . . Those are a lot of great ideas. I especially like your ideas of extending it.

I'm sure you're right about "violent play" being an outlet for figuring out what they're seeing in the media, but that isn't all of it. As Kimberly says, if that were the whole of it, girls would be impacted the same way. I really do feel like there is something hard wired about it, but the media certain amplifies it and confuses some kids (e.g., those who insist Start Wars is real because they've "seen it.").

That said, I'm actually uncomfortable calling it "violent" play. It's more like "fantasy action" play -- at least that's how I remember it feeling as a boy. I often wished it was real, but I never actually thought it was real, and I think that's the case for most of the boys with whom I've played.

D'Lynn Smith said...

Teacher Tom, I love your blogs, topics, comments and how free you are with your activities! I appreciated the topic of this one, but most of all, I love the painting with out smocks without sleeves pushed up. The focus is on the proect, not all of the "what if's" that might occur if we allow 4 year old children free reign with their work!

Susy said...

I really enjoyed reading this post, but I am still too shocked that some parents would let their preschoolers watch Star Wars to make any intelligent comment. What will they be watching when they are 13?

Renee said...

It is excellent to see a male teacher perspective on this. I've wondered these same things as a Montessori assistant and as a parent of two very young boys (2 yrs and 2 months) and as the oldest sister of two early 20s brothers, an 8 yr old brother, and a 2 yr. old brother. I'm surrounded by boys, and have been for most of my life.

I think your observation that it is fantasy action play is quite accurate to describe this phenomenon. I also relate to the comments about extending what the children are doing: discussing the other children feeling scared, or discussing that hitting hurts, or giving the adult opinion of the issue when the actions are directed at the adult. While I'd often prefer that the children would be doing "academic work" or choosing a task from the shelves (even practical life or outdoor activities), it does seem that boys need an outlet for these things (and it is rare that I've seen girls engage in it without having hurt feelings).

Have you by chance read the book "Why Gender Matters" (with a long subtitle that alludes me) by Dr. Leonard Sax? It was a really good read. As I'm typing my 2 yr. old is using his bendy straw as a gun... and what you've said resonates: he's not violent and he will grow up to be a man of peace. (I do wonder where he learned about guns, though... perhaps he saw my brothers playing xBox over the holidays?)

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