Friday, February 02, 2018

Protection Play

I typically sit on the sign-in table near the front gate as the children in our afternoon class convene on the playground. This gives me a chance to greet each kid. Many give me a quick "hi" before running off to join their friends, but there are always some who need to start their day by bending my ear over something that has happened since the last time we saw one another, like a hair cut or grandma's impending visit or a movie that impressed them. Some don't have anything particular to say, but just seem to like some time with me by way of transition.

I try to not have any agenda throughout the entire day beyond the barest one of keeping the children relatively unharmed and playing, but during this particular time of our day together, after I've already done my work of getting ready, I am especially agenda-free so it's a great time for just hanging out shooting the breeze with whatever kids choose to linger.

Earlier this week, one boy, a boy who normally does not stop to chat with me, who is usually running full speed with a stick in his hand, pretending with his friends to be action characters of some sort, declared that he was going to "protect" me.

I said, "That might be nice."

He wrangled a step stool into place and parked himself directly in front of me, stick-sword at the ready.

"I like being protected," I told him, "It makes me feel safe." He was doing a pretty good job too, although, in all honesty, no one had yet tested his protective abilities. I was actually kind of curious what would happen if another kid did approach me because although this boy likes playing action games, he is not prone to actual violence.

He smiled at me quickly, but seemed to feel that his job was to sit still, surveying the grounds. Indeed, I don't think I'd ever seen him sit still for this long and I've been his teacher for three years. Soon, with few intruders to fend off, he grew restless. "I'm going to get some . . ." He didn't finish his sentence, but he returned moments later with a pair of chairs that he carefully arranged on either side of his stool. It was unclear whether they were intended as some sort of barrier or as invitations for others, but the arrangement was precise, something I discovered by inadvertently kicking the stool out of alignment, for which I was briefly scolded.

It was at about this time that we were approached by a boy with something to say to me. I cautioned him, pointing at my guard, "He is protecting me." Before he could respond, my protector was on his feet, perfectly balanced like a martial arts master, posed defensively as if to say with his body, Not one step closer, buddy!

Unintimidated, the boy came closer which caused my protector to execute a series of moves that looked like something from a Bruce Lee movie, high kicks and all. The fact that he did this in such close quarters without actually making contact, intentional or otherwise, was impressive. I said, "Thank you for protecting me," before engaging with the boy, still unfazed, who had something to tell me.

I think we're often too quick to label action play as "aggressive" or "violent," when in fact it is actually this, protection play. I'll never forget last year when a girl complained about the "super heroes" telling us that they scared her. The superheroes were genuinely shocked to hear this, "But we're superheroes," one of them said in disbelief, "We save people!" So yes, while there may be some pretend aggression or violence, for most kids, most of the time, this is what it's about: playing at protecting the rest of us from evil. And yes, sometimes there are "bad guys," which are a necessary part of these sorts of games, just as there must be babies when we play at being mommies.

Before long, the chairs on either side of my protector were filled by kids who agreed to join the order. They all sat there together, between me and the world, for quite a long time. Indeed, they were still there, protecting me, even when my adult agenda finally called me away.

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