Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sometimes You Can Say You Can't Play

On Monday, our 3-5's class began the process of making their own rules. We put together a pretty good Ten Commandments style list, including such essentials as "no hitting," "no kick," "no pushing," and "no throwing paint on other people," amongst others. During the next few weeks, we'll fill in any gaps, with one key exception: the rule called You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.

That one sort of gets forced on them. I’ll confess that I’ve taken to manipulating our Circle Time in order to make sure this rather complex rule gets on the books early on because I know it’s a tool we’ll later be glad we have in the belt. (I do this by having a chat with a few of the older kids -- kids who remember the rule from the prior year -- and remind them that this important rule is not yet in place. Then I leave them with something like, “That would be a good rule to suggest at Circle Time.” When the hands later go up, I know You Can’t Say You Can’t Play is among them.)

The notion of exclusion isn’t an easy one for preschoolers to grasp, and while they all know how it feels to be on the receiving end, it’s a difficult concept to codify into the rules without some grown-up help. Because our classroom becomes increasingly full of 4 and 5-year-olds as the year progresses, children will begin experimenting with excluding one another, and if we’re not ready (and even if we are) it will break our hearts and boil our blood. Few things cause more parental outrage and anxiety than when our own child gets involved in this form of power play. When our child is the victim, it churns up the emotions from our own experience. And if our child is the perpetrator, the shame can be overwhelming.

Of course, learning to be powerful in the world is a good and normal thing. Knowledge is the kind of power we celebrate. Physical fitness gives us the raw powers of endurance and muscle. Persuasiveness and charm have the power to change hearts and minds. Every skill we acquire puts us incrementally more in control of the world. But as we’re all aware, there can be an ugly side to power. And just as falling on asphalt is the best way to learn about asphalt, the abuse of power is probably the best way to learn about power from both sides of the equation.

Abusing power and being abused by power are universal experiences. All of us can guiltily recall times when we pushed someone around. We’ve also all been pushed around. In other words, not only do we all need to learn to use our own power benevolently, but we must all also develop the ability to deal with those who don’t. These are skills we will use for the rest of our lives and preschool is where we lay the foundation.

It’s probably because our own experiences with exclusion are so much more current and plentiful than our memories of being hit or kicked, that most of us are better able to calmly and effectively handle run-of-the-mill hitting, pushing and snatching. At the same time many of us get tied up in knots when confronted by the ickiness of children pointedly excluding one another.

Of course, most of us have no problem stepping in when it’s a clear-cut case of exclusion, such as: “No girls allowed!” At Woodland Park we remind the children, “You can’t say you can’t play.”

But it’s not usually that simple. What do we do, for instance, when two children have cooperatively constructed a game of princess castle and a third child barges in declaring the sandbox is his fire station? Naturally, the princesses will object. Of course they’ll seek to evict the firefighter. And the sophisticated firefighter can be expected to loudly respond, “You can’t say you can’t play!” That’s the point we adults generally enter into the conflict, often siding with the rule-spouting firefighter, who, in fact, is the one taking a walk on the ugly side of power.

This kind of power play is rarely a black or white issue. The rule You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, includes the corollary: "If you insist on wrecking someone else’s game by refusing to accept an appropriate role in the game, you can be excluded." This, of course, is getting far too complicated for preschoolers to grasp in the abstract. The only way they’ll learn is through trial and error.

As the children go through their trials, it’s important for us, as teachers, to take the time to listen. I like to step into the fray by giving each side an opportunity to tell her version of the story, sometimes even going so far as to gently take physical control of a child who attempts to just walk away. Even if I think I already know what has happened, I want the children to hear both sides of the story – I want them to learn that there is always another side to the story.

In the case of the example, the princesses should not be forced to change their game for the interloper. Ultimately, the firefighter has two choices: 1) find a role within the game already underway or 2) take the firefighter game elsewhere. Our job is to guide the children to that conclusion by stating facts and asking questions. It’s a complicated concept for young children and one that we will not always be able to succeed in helping them understand. But we have to try.

And sometimes we are successful.

Several years ago, a group of older kids were using our loft as a superhero hideout. It was a noisy, exciting game involving ropes. It attracted a steady stream of younger children to check out the action. Owain took up a position at the top of the first flight of stairs. As newcomers arrived, he would block their way and ask, “Are you a good guy or a bad guy?” Most answered, “Good guy,” and were ushered into the designated part of the loft. The few who answered, “Bad guy,” were shown to another part of the loft.

My initial impulse was to put an end to this game that involved blocking the stairs, but after a moment’s reflection I realized Owain was following the You Can’t Say You Can’t Play rule to the letter, including the corollary. An established game was in progress. Newcomers were not being excluded. On the contrary they were being offered a choice of appropriate roles in the game.

I stood watching as everyone who approached was included. As the loft filled up with good guys and bad guys, everyone looked satisfied. A few minutes later an adult stepped in and broke up the game, but I still recall it as a shining moment, one I hope is recreated throughout the children’s lives.

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Rachel (Hounds in the Kitchen) said...

At my daughter's preschool, the School for Young Children in Columbus Ohio, exclusion is allowed. The teachers and administration believe that allowing children to experiment with the power of choosing their own playmates gives them a foundation for relationships in the future. The teachers help the excluded child feel rejection, an unavoidable feeling. They also help the excluders notice when someone really wants to play and negotiate. My daughter, one who cannot handle large group play sometimes, has greatly benefited by being able to limit her play to small groups. I feel like without being able to say 'you can't play' she would not be as secure in deep friendships.

Barbara Zaborowski said...

I never liked the wording of "You Can't Say You Can't Play" preferring the more positive "Find a way for everyone to play." I have an interest in preserving the integrity of their play and, if they insist that there is no room for additional characters or no legos for the newcomer or whatever, then so be it. I see their dramatic play, their lego constructions, their water play much like I see their art. I wouldn't let another child paint on someone's picture unbidden; I don't allow someone to come into dramatic play and change the storyline unbidden. The sentence "Find a way for everyone to play" allows them to preserve their art (whatever it may be) but also encourages them to include the newcomer if possible. I'm afraid to admit I've even told kids that someone as smart as they are should be able to think of a way to include everyone. Nothing like a little sucking up to them to encourage them along.

Aunt Annie said...

Wow, what an interesting post. My instinct has always gone the other way- that children shouldn't be forced to play with peers who perhaps make them uncomfortable or dominate them. Maybe your high adult ratio makes it easier to be on the spot if, say, a certain child insists on joining games and taking them over (and I don't necessarily mean changing the rules, just taking all the airspace from a more compliant, quieter child)?

How does your rule go with children who have a need for solitary play? Do they have to let others join them if they're sitting in a quiet corner, perfectly happy? If a child is, say, in the middle of a solitary experiment with a tool or toy, wouldn't this rule impede their process of discovery?

Really interested in your reply!!

Cody Moss said...

"These are skills we will use for the rest of our lives and preschool is where we lay the foundation."

It's amazing how quintessential events early in childhood will shape personal interactions for the rest of our lives.

Tom, as usual, you have brought up some points that are difficult to dismiss. Play is an essential skill to grow into a well adjusted adult. The adults are responsable for guiding the children to the best outcome. Barbara, you brought up an interesting point with your example of not letting a child paint on another's picture. "Find a way for everyone to play" is positive and puts control in the child's hands, I like it!

Tom, I would like to get a hold of you to discuss some of your philosophies. What is the most convenient form of communication?

Unknown said...

My behavior didn't change because I was bullied or the bully. Only time and maturity brought those to me.

I would love to see the results in 30 years if our children were taught inclusion. A more caring populace. More power in the hands of the people because the abuses of corporations would not longer be seen as a natural occurance as long as we get ours.

Or maybe we just become really soft and the lack of confrontation stifles individualism.

We have seen confrontational lets try the other way.

Amy Johnson said...

over the past several years i have had have several children with some pretty intense behavior issues. when a tommy hits or screams at molly (which has already occurred twice that week), then goes back and wants to play with her, i see molly's refusal to play with him as a natural consequence. there would certainly be follow-up with both children and perhaps an intentional play situation set-up to repair the relationship (which is always possible at this age, as preschoolers rarely hold grudges).

Anonymous said...

I love the positive spin of "find a way for everyone to play" instead of the double negative. I don't have children yet, but I've helped raise my much younger brother and taught many children how to swim, skate, play volleyball, do math, speak French, etc. When I was younger, I wasn't quite one of the cool kids, but I wasn't someone who was necessarily bullied either. I was somewhere in the gray area in between. I remember how the "popular" children used to treat those they had decided didn't fit in at all and it was awful. It usually happened around 2nd grade. Years later, after I had changed schools in high school and gone off to university, I ran into one of them in a new city at a bus station. After we greeted each other, surprised at this unlikely run in 5 hours and years away from the last place we'd seen each other, she grabbed her partner, pulled him over to me and said "this girl was one of the only people that was ever nice to me in school". I cannot tell you how taken aback, humbled and wonderful that felt. This flood of emotion, this desire to run and tell all children everywhere "just wait-years from now, things will be so different and people will remember how you treated them and it will make all of the difference-so just please, PLEASE keep that in mind". I found out that she'd lost her mother the summer after the last time that I saw her and so moved to be with her aunt and uncle and that's how she got to be here. I ended up being there when she found out she was pregnant, I went with her to appointments, stayed with her the night before she went into labor and visited her in the hospital after she had her twin girls. I remember being in the kitchen of my residence at university before going to her baby shower, listening to some of the girls we had been in school with as children talking about her. All of these years later- some of them were just as cruel, even moreso than they had been when we were children. I had to stop myself from scalding them like children and instead defiantly grabbed my gift for her and left for the party with the knowledge that the attitudes ingrained in them as children had not changed. Now, more than ever, I live my life with the idea that everyone should have a friend- and if I can be that friend, I will do my best to be that person. What's more is that everyone deserves kindness, not just respect, but kindness. Going further than that, children need to understand that they will have to interact with people who are different from themselves and they will have to make the best of it- In school, in the workplace and even in their personal lives. The sooner they learn to be adaptable, work together and be kind to one another, the better. That in my opinion is what "find a way for everyone to play" is about- there will be plenty of opportunities to learn about dealing with rejection believe me.