Friday, November 20, 2009

The Realms Of “We”

We had 5 balloons left over from a Tuesday afternoon session of Pre-K “volleyball,” and didn’t want to waste them so when I set up the gym for yesterday’s large motor session, I tossed them into the mix.

From the very start we had problems: essentially the first 5 kids who came into the room grabbed a balloon and held onto it. Sure, a couple kids tentatively tossed the balloons into the air, but then immediately chased after them shouting, “That’s mine!” as other children went after them. It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen before with this particular 3-5 class. We have ten 11” sponge balls that we often use indoors, and the same thing tends to happen with those.

Generally speaking, I pride myself on my patience with preschoolers, but this fad drives me crazy. There are always one or two kids in every class with the instinct to protect their toys rather than play with them, and we can usually work around that, but when half the class shows this proclivity we’ve got a problem.

My first somewhat impatient response, which is pedagogically suspect, was to answer the kids who said, “That’s mine!” with “No it’s not. That balloon belongs to everyone.” I don’t think I’ve ever set off so many quivering lower lips in such a short span of time. I backed this up by loudly and repeatedly announcing, “The balloons are for throwing and hitting into the air, not for holding,” and, “If you’re just holding a balloon I’m going to take it from you and throw it into the air.” Before long there were 8-10 whimpering kids wandering around the gym complaining about “my balloon.”

That’s when I said, “That’s it. I’m going to put away the balloons,” and with the help of a parent we gathered them up. And there we stood knee-deep in teary-eyed children pleading for the return of the balloons. I really intended to put the balloons away, but looking at their wet faces, hearing their plaintive words, it dawned on me that this was about more than the return of the toys. They might have each been pleading their own selfish cases, but as a body they were begging, in concert, to be taught how to play together with a limited resource. I realized that taking those balloons away would work as far as bringing an end to the bickering, but it would be the coward’s way out.

While I had their undivided attention I repeated, “The balloons belong to everyone. They are for throwing into the air, not for holding. When people hold the balloons it makes other people cry.” I then let them know that if any of the adults saw a child just holding a balloon, we would take if from them and toss it into the air. There were at least 4 other adults in the room as I set these rules of the game and the five of us began playing our role as referees, snatching balloons from the grips of unwary kids, batting them back an forth over their heads, swatting them into the far corners of the room, and generally foiling any attempts to claim “possession” of any single balloon. There were still some tears, but after about 5 minutes the children who hadn’t given up on the game altogether were getting the hang of it. We did have to emphasize that the snatching was the exclusive right of the adults, but there were so many of us and we were so quick that there were often 5 balloons in the air at any given moment.

As the adults role modeled the “ethic” of keeping the balloons in the air, and enforced the rules of “community ownership,” new games began to emerge. Jack and Finn V. took a balloon off to the side where they practiced hitting it back and forth between them. When another child would intervene, they laughed and chased after it. Orlando, Isak and Charlie L. had fun bird-dogging their favorite colored balloons around the room. But mostly we played the game of working together to keep the balloons aloft. It wasn’t entirely joyful play, but that’s to be expected. It's hard work stretching your brain beyond the comfort zone of “me” and into the mysterious and exciting realms of “we.”

The balloons will remain with us next week. This isn't the work of a single day.

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Michelle said...

The ever distinct sound of "That's Mine" echo in my ear... you did a great job living up to your internal voice Teacher Tom. Your children will carry this lesson with them far beyond the walls of that gym. What you teach will take hold and live on in each of them... even if they don't realize it :)

Michelle said...

I have some of those squabbles even just with the two wee ones. It's a hard lesson for young children. I have learned that helping them understand the rules of fair play before we start playing helps a ton with (at least) my kids. I think I might have to go find some balloons myself....

Anonymous said...

This is constant struggle for us at Gymboree class every week. Invariably the boys run off and gobble up all the balls in site and run around holding onto them rather than playing with them.

MOM #1 said...

I love this story. Community ownership.

I never have anything interesting to add, because I'm a high strung-knee-jerk-reaction-don't-really-do-very-well-with-small-children type of girl. But I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy reading your blog.