Monday, February 19, 2018

"Only Little Dinosaurs Can Come Into Our House"




Our three-year-olds were playing with our regulation issue wooden unit blocks and our full collection of dinosaurs, both large and small scale. The idea, of course, is that the kids will build things and find ways to incorporate the dinos, but from the moment class started a group of rowdy boys took over the area and the game they chose was to empty the block shelves, dump the dino box, and race around kicking whatever was on the floor. It was a loud game, with lots of wild laughing, periodic shrieking, and occasional forays into wrestling or variations on the wrestling theme. Their play was interrupted regularly by angry flare-ups that sometimes included hitting, pushing, and tears, only to revert to form moments later.

It was the sort of thing that had been happening almost daily and it kept the adults busy. On the one hand, we are a play-based school, which means the children lead, and it's not our place to put the kibosh on their self-selected pursuits. On the other hand, we're also responsible for their safety, both physical and emotional, so we were performing a balancing act between letting them do what they need to do while preventing them from killing one another or someone else.

This is important play for these kids. I see it for what it is: young boys enthusiastically reaching out to other young boys in friendship. As they get older, they'll have "better" ideas for how to play together, but for now it's exciting enough to just be together and to get a little crazy. It's enough to kick through the blocks and dinos, looking into one another's faces, and laugh like The Joker. Indeed, the excitement of being together is so palpable, so present among them on days like this, that it's probably all they can do. Their love for one another is overwhelming.

That said, when they engage in this sort of play, they effectively shut-down a part of the classroom to the other kids who are more inclined to, say, build things and find ways to incorporate the dinos. On this particular day, I was sitting on a bench supporting a parent-teacher in monitoring the rowdy play when I was joined by L and J, a couple of girls who have older brothers. They sat with me on the bench, watching the boys.

L said, "Those boys are too dangerous. They're too crazy." She wasn't saying it as a complaint as much as a bemused observation.

I answered, "That's why I'm sitting over here. I don't want to get hit by a block."

Meanwhile, J jumped off the bench and retrieved a couple stray dinos. "This is a mommy and a baby," she told us. L waited until she saw a break in the action, dashed in for her own mommy and baby, then dashed back out, literally ducking her head. It didn't seem right that they had to risk their own safety (even if they only perceived they were at risk) to play with the toys in their own classroom. For better or worse, I decided to take action.

I retrieved my own mommy and baby, then said, "I've got an idea. Let's build a house for our dinosaurs!"

They liked the idea, so I gathered up a few blocks, then sprawled my large adult body on the carpet, sort of commandeering about of a quarter of the area, creating a space for our building. I loudly declared, "We're building a house for our dinosaurs." When the rowdy play got near us, I said things like, "Hey! You almost hit me with that block," or "This is our dinosaur house!" Before long the boys' had figured out the new boundaries for their game. And shortly thereafter, we were joined by a pair of kids, a boy and a girl, who do not have older siblings at home, kids who had previously been too intimidated by the rowdy play to even come as close as the bench on which we'd been sitting. Soon we had a nice little game of dino housekeeping underway.

In fact, our play began to attract the attention of the rowdy boys, one of whom knelt down with us, his two large T-Rex models poised, it appeared, to "stomp" our house. I said, "This is our house. We're not playing a stomping game. We're playing a quiet, gentle game."

He looked at me with a face full of the genuineness of his question, "Why?"

"I guess we just don't want to be rowdy." This seemed to completely perplex him. Then he asked, "Can my dinosaurs come into your house?"

S said, "No, they're too big. They'll smash it down."

J added, "Yeah, only little dinosaurs can come into our house."

He backed off a bit, unwilling to relinquish his big dinos, but remained where he could watch us. It wasn't long before he was joined by first one, then two more of his buddies, all holding their large dinosaurs. They formed an outer circle of kibitzers around our inside core of "gentle" players. It was as if we had a bubble around us. As we played, both the inner and outer groups grew, with more and more kids dropping down to join us, either contributing to our building or our dino family, while one at a time the rowdy players came to watch, all of them two-fisting larger dinosaurs.

As new kids joined us, I repeated, "This is our house. We're not playing a stomping game," a mantra that was taken up by S and J. After a few minutes, I slowly extracted myself, leaving behind a corner of space for building things and incorporating the dinos. On the following day, the quiet, gentle corner emerged all on its own.

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