Sunday, March 28, 2010

Important Costumes

(Note: My thoughts have been on Owain for the past 48 hours, so I thought I'd share one of the things I've been thinking about. The great news is that Owain is in "good spirits," and his family is hoping he can come home tomorrow. If you want to join Owain's Army, you can access his CaringBridge page here.)
Up until Owain arrived in my classroom, I'd had a "no costumes" policy, just as I'd had a
"no toy's from home" policy. We had classroom dress-up clothes, of course, but somehow I had the idea that allowing costumes from home would be too distracting. What an idiot I was, and Owain showed me that.

He was relentless in his desire to go through life dressed for the occasion, and to his mother Heather's credit, she let her 3-year-old wear his US Air Force flight suit to school, a gift from his grandmother as I recall, in spite of my policy. I now know she must have been thinking, It's your damn policy. You try enforcing it. 

When he walked into the room as a 3-year-old, wearing that flight suit, even his older classmates were impressed, but it was more than just the clothes, it was the way he wore them, as if he were conscious of the duty, pride and honor they implied. How could a child that young understand these things? It's crazy, but that's how it struck me.

And it wasn't just me. There were some kids for whom the day hadn't started until he arrived, full of information and ideas, a man in uniform, ready to get something going. At the time, I rationalized the involuntary flexibility in my policy by making a mental distinction between a uniform and a costume, but I lost my hiding place when he moved on to capes and his Transformer costume. I never invoked the policy because, frankly, my fear of distraction (whatever I even thought that meant) never materialized, and instead I saw nothing but good.

Owain opened my eyes to the important role costumes can play in the development of a strong self-image for some kids. A big part of the job of young children is to be "powerful" in the world, to try out the traits we ascribe to our "heroes," those to whom we associate characteristics we admire. In a very real sense, donning a flight suit, or a crown, or a cape, imbues the wearer with those traits. My own daughter Josephine wore a crown of some sort nearly every day for the better part of 2-years, even to school, and I saw not only how it made her behave like a princess, but how others treated her like a princess. When she met Sophia, another crown-wearer, it was love at first sight. (Eight years later Sophia is still a friend with whom she "plays" aspirational games with clothing, music, and make-up.)

I used to spend a lot of time monkeying around with our classroom costume collection, trying to figure out why only the princess stuff was ever used. We had cowboy hats, baseball shirts, and animal costumes, but they rarely left the hooks unless an adult sort of "forced" the issue. Naturally, we didn't have any superhero or military stuff -- my adult brain associated those with violence -- but here was this boy Owain showing me that the real power associated with these heroes was in their boldness, goodness, and fearlessness. 

It's not all superheroes and princesses in the costume world. At different times, our classroom has hosted children trying out the costumed power of dinosaurs, ballerinas, astronauts, construction workers, doctors, monster trucks, and even mommies and daddies. Often their "costumes" are little more than t-shirts with pictures allowing them to borrow that particular kind of power for a time, but the common theme is that I can't pick their meaningful costumes for them. Our classroom dress-up clothes will always, at best, be stand-ins for the important costumes they have at home.

That's what Owain (and Heather) taught me. Without their bold insistence of making me confront my idiotic policy, I might have squelched our be-caped Alex, or Charlotte, who wore her cowgirl costume almost every day for a year, or Ava, who often came dressed in her firefighter ensemble. Not to mention the super team of Ella, Josephine, and Katherine who spent last Thursday "flying" around the classroom in the wonderful, non-commercial capes Charlie L.'s mom Shelly recently made for us, finally giving us classroom "stand-in" costumes the kids will actually wear beyond the princess gowns.

But the important costumes, the most powerful ones, will always come from home. And they're welcome at Woodland Park.

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Jason, as himself said...

I'll say it again: I wish my own children got to experience your preschool class!

Deborah Stewart said...

I love those capes hanging on the door! I think we as teachers all have some fears that when children bring toys or costumes from home that it will only result in a battle for their attention. I guess the challenge lies in either making learning equally as interesting or intriguing or build on the ideas and things children bring from home and swing them around to being a part of the learning process. It is much easier just to make a rule that eliminates the problem but then again who is the rule for? Is it for the best interest of the kids or for the sanity of the teacher:) I will stop now but you got me thinking... LOL!

Ms Debbie said...

You always inspire me to think " out of the box" - beyond the " it needs to be in the classroom because..." I struggle with my costume area as well. Just this morning I placed new easter bonnets in there as a surprise and wondered , will they wear them? What significance will it have ? In our area, ladies don't even wear Easter Frills much anymore. Thanks for getting the wheels turning this morning.

Kris Panton said...

The new capes are great! I remember after Owain started wearing a cape several other kids also started wearing capes to school. For Alex, his cape has been a great conversation-starter, I think it really helped him learn how to talk to new people. It's a good way for a quieter child to make an entrance!

Play for Life said...

Yay for capes! If it wasn't for our capes too many of our children would never dress up and loose themselves to the joys of a fantasy world. We all know some parents simply think we are encouraging 'rough play' by allowing capes but in truth we are allowing those children to feel empowered, something which at the age of five probably doesn't happen very often in their regular day ... Listen to me! ... Don't do that! ... I said NO! ... We have to go! ... You can't have that! ... Sit still! ... Be quiet! ... Eat it all! ... Leave me alone!) Yeh ... I say give them a piece a material to hang from their shoulders and plastic diamonds to wear on their heads and Super Hero bracelets to wrap around their wrists (regardless of age), if it means they feel good about themselves and powerful and strong. It's actually a wonderful learning tool and the perfect opportunity for us to teach the children good from bad, right from wrong, gentle from rough, happy from sad ... I know it can be a tough gig sometimes and as Deborah said "It is much easier just to make a rule that eliminates the problem but then again who is the rule for? Is it for the best interest of the kids or for the sanity of the teacher."
Sorry Teachers (and Parents) ... but it's not actually about US ... it's about the best interest of the kids ... our sanity however does comes in at a close second!


Teacher Tom said...

As I wrote this, it never crossed my mind that most of you know me by the photo I use on this blog! Heh, it never crossed my mind that I present myself to you as a superhero!

That's me dressed as my alter-ego, Captain Superhugger! He comes out again on June 21 -- the Summer Solstice.

Scott said...

This post has given me a lot to think about. Your observations and Deborah's comments have me thinking "Why do I have that rule?" - a broader question than costumes. Hmmm.

Kat said...

I always feel as if I walk a tightrope between enforcing rules to keep peace and tranquility and throwing the rules out the window because they don't really reflect what I want to teach. In the end I just want my littles to have a place where they are not judged, where they are listened to, and where they can feel free to be themselves. Thank you for writing things that get me thinking about what it is I do and WHY I am doing it!

Unknown said...

I loved this. I love so much what you do. I love how you learn. How you readily admit to making mistakes. How you grow. I always say thank you for sharing, and I know it probably seems like some trite thing I could say to anyone but I truly mean it from the bottom of my heart. Thank you Teacher Tom. You teach me.