Monday, June 13, 2011

"I'm A Bad Pirate"

A while back, one of our younger boys in the 3-5 class went through a phase in which he'd enter the classroom and introduce himself to everyone by saying, "I'm a bad guy." Sometimes it was a "bad monster" or a "bad dinosaur," but it was always something "bad." A few of the older boys, then, took him at his word and "put him in jail," which was the mesh basket in which we kept our stuffed animals. They didn't physically restrain him in the basket, but rather simply told him it was "jail," told him to go in it, and told him he couldn't escape.

At one point, he was jailed in the top of the loft and I noticed two other boys trying to drag the basket down the stairs, although they weren't physically strong enough to budge it, having succeeded only in blocking the passageway. I said, "I don't want you to block the stairs. You can play your game down stairs." They agreed that this was a fine plan and all three boys walked down the stairs carrying the basket together, then re-set their game under the loft. It all appeared very matter-of-fact, the younger boy just toddling along with his older classmates, then climbing back into the basket, an apparently voluntary prisoner.

Later he reported to his mother that it was a scary game and that he didn't want to play it any more.

A synonym for "play" is "experiment," and every research scientist I've ever met would agree. Another is "explore." Another, I would argue, is "adventure."

He'd had an adventure, alright, without leaving our little classroom, one kicked off simply by trying out a role that seemed appealing.  He'd lived, first hand, a story with the classic plot of Where The Wild Things Are or Storm Boy: boy tests out his power, finds himself on a strange adventure among alien beings, then returns home where things are once more familiar.

It was early in the school year and as a social experiment it certainly was a way to get to know some of those glamorous older guys. He also learned that if you call yourself "bad" perhaps you shouldn't be surprised if the other people take you at your word.

It was also a nice exploration of the word "bad," which often seems so clearly to be one side of a diametric pairing, like black and white, but as we all know really isn't. I suspect he was trying out the word "bad" as a synonym for "powerful."

For several days thereafter, he avoided the older boys, tending to play alone or with his age peers. He still introduced himself to me, quietly, as "bad," to which I always replied, "If you say you're bad, people might treat you like you're bad." But by now the word "bad" meant "powerful," not just to him, but to all the boys playing those games.

He's now one of the older boys, quite boldly proclaiming himself a "bad pirate." Last week, when a couple of his classmates wrapped ropes around him, telling him he was their prisoner, he got out his sword, cut through those ropes, and made his daring escape.

A little later, I tried echoing his own words back to him from only a few months ago, "That looked like a scary game."

He answered, "It's not scary. I'm a bad pirate."

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Susan said...

My son who is three has a buddy who is a year older than him and is really into super heros. I have strayed from purchasing those toys for my son, but he plays with them at his friend's house. Typically they have "bad guys" and "good guys" when they play super heros. I have tried to refrain from using the term "bad guys" and have told my son "there are no bad people, only bad choices." I do not want him to use that label for himself or others even in play. How do you feel about this?

Floor Pie said...

I like to check in with the kids when I see a game like that in action. Not in an alarmed or judgmental way, but just matter-of-factly checking in. "Oh, Joe's in jail. Are you okay with this game, Joe?"

And most of the time the child grins and nods, but sometimes the child shakes their head and gives me a "Get me out of here!" look.

"You can say 'no' if you don't like it," I remind them. "You can say STOP." And the child's face will light up, remembering all the practice we do at circle time with STOP, and they'll say it. "STOP!"

I'll say to the friends, in a gentle voice "Joe said STOP. He's not okay with this game. Look at his face." And the friends will study his face carefully. "Does he look happy?" No, they will agree that he doesn't look happy. "What can we do?" I ask.

Most of the time they all say "Let's play X!" and all run off to play a different game. Sometimes we get to that point with more coaching. Sometimes just the "jailors" run off and I help redirect the child to a new activity.

I agree that there's value in exploration and testing the boundaries. It's amazing to watch the 4's and even the 3's work things out for themselves. They're incredibly capable.

BUT I also think that checking in reminds them that they're safe and that the adults are tuned in. It reinforces the process of checking in with themselves. "Am I okay? Do I like this game? Can I say no?" And it reinforces basic social skills, reminding children to look at each other's faces for cues. "Is my friend okay with this? Are we still having fun?"

These are big skills that need nurturing and coaching. That's why I prefer to err on the side of intervening. Worst that can happen, I interrupt the flow of the game for a minute and get some "What's up with the crazy lady?" looks from the kids. But for those times when the child is really relieved to have help and all the children learn from it...that makes it worthwile.

Teacher Tom said...

@Susan . . . Young children tend to need to explore the stereotypical extremes of things before they can get to the grey area. That's why preschoolers so often pretend to be superheros and princesses in the first place -- those are the extreme manifestations of the gender roles our society offers them. In most cases, however, by the time they get to be about 8-9 they are starting to be able to understand that they themselves are not necessarily bound by these stereotypes. I guess that's why I don't really have a problem with "good" and "bad" play, I see it as developmentally appropriate exploration.

Over the years, I've tried to show them the grey area, but have been generally met with blank stares. I'm sure some of it sinks in, and I'm not saying you shouldn't point it out, but grey area, perspective, and relativity seem to be developmental.

@FP . . . Thanks!

wondersofnature said...

I've been working 1:1 with a pupil who has been experimenting in this way, but I've been the one put in jail. Its been his way of working out how he feels about loss and bereavment.

To start with I was put in jail every week, and intially wasn't allowed to speak, but over a period of several months I was allowed a voice when I would say that I was feeling scared and powerless. After another few months I was given a choice as to whether I could escape or not.

In the last few weeks my charge has put me in jail and then soon after rescued me for us to go off and "fight the 'bad' guys together"!

He had been trying to experiment in this way with his classmates, but not surprisingly they were finding it too much. But he needed to explore these issues of power and control, work through them and become accepted back into his peer group again.

Things are still black and white, good and bad, but he's slowly realising that people can be both so hopefully its a small step to him finding the grey area in between.

Barbara Zaborowski said...

I'm happy to hear that you continue to mention the grey area even when met with blank stares. They may not be developmentally ready to understand it, but when they are, the light bulb will go on so much quicker as they think "Oh, THAT'S what Teacher Tom was talking about!"
And, Floor Pie, we've added an upraised hand to "Stop" because the movement (like a traffic cop's) catches the attention of the other players.

Susan said...

Thanks Tom for your response. I understand they grey area you spoke of, and it makes perfect sense with a fresh perspective. I never really thought about gender sterotypes playing a part in this. I got caught up on the word 'bad'. That is not a word I use to describe others, and I don't want my son to use it in description of someone else either. However, I suppose I need to reassess my meaning of 'bad'. This reflection will help me deal with this bias more effectively I'm sure. While I probably won't dive right into super heros, I'll definately look at his play differently. Again, thanks for your help!

Aunt Annie said...

Tom, I really enjoyed this post. The thing I found most interesting was the way the younger child brought himself into the game by taking what is normally seen as the least desirable role (the captured one) but maintained his own power through the role he chose. Fantastic!

I fully agree that children need to work out 'bad' and 'good' in their own way through play, and there's no harm in it. I would give some 'formative advice' if they started labelling their friends with 'bad' outside the realm of fantasy play, but in play like this they're just reflecting and experimenting with the roles they see in TV and film stories- very normal.

Jena @ HappyLittleMesses said...

This post reads as if it's straight out of the Vivian Paley book I'm reading. Bad guys don't have Birthdays.
Thanks for the great articles, Teacher Tom. I'm a stay at home mom of 2 wild little boys who love to play monster and bad guys, used to be a Studio teacher at a PreK, and feel like I'm still in the game when I read your stuff. You rock.

balmeras said...

Tom: In my next life, I'm coming back as one of your students. And a very, very bad pirate.

:-) Bethe

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