Monday, June 01, 2015


If there's one aspect of our outdoor classroom that consistently provokes conflict, it would be our swing set. With only two regular seats and 20 or so kids, there's almost always someone waiting for a turn, or, more precisely, someone who is upset with how long the current swinger is taking to get finished.

Generally speaking, our policy about sharing is that we tell the person currently using an object, "When you're finished, I want a turn," (although more often than not it's expressed as, "I'm next!") then let that person with possession decide for her or himself when it's time to give way, which always happens sooner or later, if only because they can't resist the "pressure" of a friend just standing there waiting for them. It's not a perfect system, prone to abuse, but I think it's better than the alternative which is for an adult to arbitrarily decide when it's time to give it up, robbing children of an opportunity to practice working things out for themselves.

When I paused to listen in to these two girls, I heard one of them counting while the other took a turn.

And while the swing set is where much of our turn-taking and sharing practice takes place, they are skills easily transferable to other endeavors. For instance, we had our old Fisher Price "record player" out, a wind-up device with 5 tough plastic records. A group of us were in the other room, leaving the field clear for Finn, who loves figuring things out, to master the thing. When we returned, there were suddenly a half dozen kids in his space, demanding a turn. Finn let out a howl as the other kids turned to the adults, loudly, saying things like, "He won't give us a turn!" and "He's taking too long!" Emotions were high.

I said, stating the facts as I understood them, "Finn, your friends want a turn when you're finished."

He answered, "I have to play these records first."

I asked, "Then someone else will get a turn?"

He said, "Yes," and everyone backed off a pace. Finn then methodically selected a record, placed it on the turn table, wound it up and turned it on. With the first few notes of Camptown Races, children began to call out, "Now it's my turn!"

When she'd counted to 20, they traded places, and the count to 20 began again.

"No," said Finn, taking the floor, "I have to play all the records." That's when it dawned on me that his plan was to not only play each of the 5 records, but to play each of them until they'd exhausted the wind-up. This was going to be a 15 minute proposition. I asked, "So you're going to play all of those records?"


A couple kids shouted, "That's not fair!"

I said, "It's his turn. When he's done someone else gets a turn."

As the records played, the number of children waiting dwindled, but not by much: four of them remained crowded around. With London Bridges in the air, they began to sort themselves out. Rex was standing directly behind Finn, using that to support his claim that he was next. Charlotte objected at first, but after a couple rounds, relented, stating, "Then I'm after you." She then pointed across the table at Cooper, "And you're after me," to which he agreed, although that left Ben "last," which didn't seem at all fair to him.

This was a system they worked out on their own: no obedience necessary, just agreement among peers. I said nothing, no "atta girls" necessary, because the reward, as it always is when we are left to work things out for ourselves, is built into the solution.

As Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star played, Rex took a crack at things, pointing as he spoke, "I'm first, she's second, he's third, and you're fourth." This use of ordinals was stroke of genius on Rex's part, leaving Ben feeling much better about being fourth rather than "last." 

By now Finn had played 3 of his 5 records. With the turn-taking sorted out, everyone's attentions now returned to him. There were a couple grumbles of, "He's taking a long time," and "When is it going to be our turn?"

As he placed Clair de Lune on the turntable, he said, "This is the last one I'm going to play. I don't like that other one." Playing 4 records instead of 5 was his concession to the group. He then declared himself "finished" a couple notes in, vacating his chair for Rex.

Rex, Charlotte, Cooper, and Ben, their sharing plan already agreed upon, then rotated through in a matter of minutes without a hitch.

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