On Monday, our 3-5's class began the process of making their own rules. We put together a pretty good Ten Commandments style list, including such essentials as "no hitting," "no kick," "no pushing," and "no throwing paint on other people," amongst others. During the next few weeks, we'll fill in any gaps, with one key exception: the rule called You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.
That one sort of gets forced on them. I’ll confess that I’ve taken to manipulating our Circle Time in order to make sure this rather complex rule gets on the books early on because I know it’s a tool we’ll later be glad we have in the belt. (I do this by having a chat with a few of the older kids -- kids who remember the rule from the prior year -- and remind them that this important rule is not yet in place. Then I leave them with something like, “That would be a good rule to suggest at Circle Time.” When the hands later go up, I know You Can’t Say You Can’t Play is among them.)
The notion of exclusion isn’t an easy one for preschoolers to grasp, and while they all know how it feels to be on the receiving end, it’s a difficult concept to codify into the rules without some grown-up help. Because our classroom becomes increasingly full of 4 and 5-year-olds as the year progresses, children will begin experimenting with excluding one another, and if we’re not ready (and even if we are) it will break our hearts and boil our blood. Few things cause more parental outrage and anxiety than when our own child gets involved in this form of power play. When our child is the victim, it churns up the emotions from our own experience. And if our child is the perpetrator, the shame can be overwhelming.
Of course, learning to be powerful in the world is a good and normal thing. Knowledge is the kind of power we celebrate. Physical fitness gives us the raw powers of endurance and muscle. Persuasiveness and charm have the power to change hearts and minds. Every skill we acquire puts us incrementally more in control of the world. But as we’re all aware, there can be an ugly side to power. And just as falling on asphalt is the best way to learn about asphalt, the abuse of power is probably the best way to learn about power from both sides of the equation.
Abusing power and being abused by power are universal experiences. All of us can guiltily recall times when we pushed someone around. We’ve also all been pushed around. In other words, not only do we all need to learn to use our own power benevolently, but we must all also develop the ability to deal with those who don’t. These are skills we will use for the rest of our lives and preschool is where we lay the foundation.
It’s probably because our own experiences with exclusion are so much more current and plentiful than our memories of being hit or kicked, that most of us are better able to calmly and effectively handle run-of-the-mill hitting, pushing and snatching. At the same time many of us get tied up in knots when confronted by the ickiness of children pointedly excluding one another.
Of course, most of us have no problem stepping in when it’s a clear-cut case of exclusion, such as: “No girls allowed!” At Woodland Park we remind the children, “You can’t say you can’t play.”
But it’s not usually that simple. What do we do, for instance, when two children have cooperatively constructed a game of princess castle and a third child barges in declaring the sandbox is his fire station? Naturally, the princesses will object. Of course they’ll seek to evict the firefighter. And the sophisticated firefighter can be expected to loudly respond, “You can’t say you can’t play!” That’s the point we adults generally enter into the conflict, often siding with the rule-spouting firefighter, who, in fact, is the one taking a walk on the ugly side of power.
This kind of power play is rarely a black or white issue. The rule You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, includes the corollary: "If you insist on wrecking someone else’s game by refusing to accept an appropriate role in the game, you can be excluded." This, of course, is getting far too complicated for preschoolers to grasp in the abstract. The only way they’ll learn is through trial and error.
As the children go through their trials, it’s important for us, as teachers, to take the time to listen. I like to step into the fray by giving each side an opportunity to tell her version of the story, sometimes even going so far as to gently take physical control of a child who attempts to just walk away. Even if I think I already know what has happened, I want the children to hear both sides of the story – I want them to learn that there is always another side to the story.
In the case of the example, the princesses should not be forced to change their game for the interloper. Ultimately, the firefighter has two choices: 1) find a role within the game already underway or 2) take the firefighter game elsewhere. Our job is to guide the children to that conclusion by stating facts and asking questions. It’s a complicated concept for young children and one that we will not always be able to succeed in helping them understand. But we have to try.
And sometimes we are successful.
Several years ago, a group of older kids were using our loft as a superhero hideout. It was a noisy, exciting game involving ropes. It attracted a steady stream of younger children to check out the action. Owain took up a position at the top of the first flight of stairs. As newcomers arrived, he would block their way and ask, “Are you a good guy or a bad guy?” Most answered, “Good guy,” and were ushered into the designated part of the loft. The few who answered, “Bad guy,” were shown to another part of the loft.
My initial impulse was to put an end to this game that involved blocking the stairs, but after a moment’s reflection I realized Owain was following the You Can’t Say You Can’t Play rule to the letter, including the corollary. An established game was in progress. Newcomers were not being excluded. On the contrary they were being offered a choice of appropriate roles in the game.
I stood watching as everyone who approached was included. As the loft filled up with good guys and bad guys, everyone looked satisfied. A few minutes later an adult stepped in and broke up the game, but I still recall it as a shining moment, one I hope is recreated throughout the children’s lives.
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