Wednesday, November 02, 2011


Yesterday afternoon Sasha and I were working on puzzles, which means it was really just Sasha, who is a master puzzler. Last year, as a 3-year-old she once sat at the top of a giant floor puzzle and pretty much directed a team of 4-year-old boys, step-by-step, through to completion. She has some definite ideas on how to work a puzzle and likes to put her theories into practice. These were 12-piece wooden jigsaws and she was making steady work of them, knocking them off while carrying on an unrelated conversation with me.

When Jody arrived, he did so with the idea that he wanted to work a puzzle with me. Jody is a puzzler as well, but mainly insofar as they advance his social agenda. I've been working puzzles with him for 3 years now and I can't recall a time when we actually finished one unless I pressed the issue. He most definitely can finish one, and I have no doubt he gets through them at home, but when it comes to working them with me at school, it's really all about the conversation, often prompted by the subject matter of the puzzle.

Sasha didn't seem to mind the intrusion into what had been one-on-one play, taking a puzzle off to a corner of the rug to work on her own, while Jody chose a puzzle for us that depicted children riding a playground merry-go-round. We started by orienting the empty puzzle frame with the bottom toward us. This took a great deal of discussion because it wasn't readily apparent from the clues provided, but we finally decided that the part that looks like the sky ought to go on the top, and the part with bits of children's shoes should go at the bottom.

We then fell into a conversation about how it would be "cool" if the kids were riding the merry-go-round on their heads. "Then their feet would go on the top. Maybe that's how the puzzle goes!"

This is when Sasha turned away from her puzzle, with an air of slight exasperation. "Do you guys want me to help you?"

I answered in the name of being inclusive, "We might need help."

Jody said, "I already know how to do this whole puzzle."

Taking her cue from me, Sasha informed us, "You have to start by turning all the pieces over, you guys," then proceeded to do it for us. "And you have to spread them out so you can see them a little more better." She then returned to her own puzzle.

There was a tension in the air during the exchange, not exactly tight-lipped, but certainly measured. Mature was the word that came to me. I guess this is what we adults do all day long in the name of civility, biting our tongues when the other people do things the "wrong way," picking our battles, and that's what both Sasha and Jody were doing here. A less sophisticated Sasha might have plowed ahead based upon my invitation, taking over the management of this project that we were clearly botching from the get-go. Jody could have escalated his objection to her intrusion, shouting or crying, making himself crystal clear, but instead after initially and clearly voicing his objection, he let it ride. 

In other words, they both read the situation, accurately, based upon cues both obvious and subtle and chose tolerance.

I have mixed feelings about it all, of course, each of them opting to set their own agenda aside, at least temporarily, in favor of that of another. After all, one of the foundations of a play-based curriculum is that children get to pursue their own agendas?  Or was it, in this case, my agenda they were adopting, the one of cooperation and sharing I've been going on about for the past 3 years? Had I not been there would it have gone the same way? They're both pretty level headed kids, capable of managing their emotions, so I can imagine it might have gone more or less the same way even without me there, but how much of the entire exchange came via me anyway, in absentia so to speak? Isn't a full-on flare up, if not better, at least more honest? Then again, isn't this what we adults role model all day long, this thing that too often, inaccurately, gets labeled "passive aggressive" by those who would have us "just say what we mean?" Do we really want to live in a world in which everyone is always barking at each other over every little thing, making themselves clear, but at the price of civility? Isn't it better to live in a world in which we all learn to pick up on one another's more subtle cues, many of which aren't yet thought through well enough to put into words? Isn't that a part of what we call empathy? Then again, I'm always going on about how I want the children of Woodland Park to be the kind of people who speak out for themselves . . .

Earlier in the day, during the Pre-3 class, Eric had managed to collect and assemble our entire large 3-piece train set. It's a popular toy, the only one we have of its kind, and it's rare that a single child manages to put the whole thing together, let alone gets to play with it all on his own. It's a conflict machine, in fact, one we break out in the full knowledge that the adults will be engaged in a lot of emotion coaching and conflict resolution. 

Eric was quietly engineering it around the obstacle course of tables, chairs and feet of the classroom, apparently on his way to making a complete circuit. He was on the home stretch when Rhys dropped to his knees and decided to help by taking hold of the caboose and pushing. It was a purely cooperative maneuver, an act of playing with

Eric stopped driving and scowled. 

Rhys took no notice of Eric's face, but did stop pushing.

Eric said, too softly for Rhys to hear, "I don't want you to do that."

The two boys sat in position for several seconds, Eric waiting for Rhys to respond to him, while Rhys waited for the train to once more set into motion. There was that same tension I would later sense between Sasha and Jody: Eric wanted Rhys to stop, Rhys wanted Eric to go. These are 2-year-olds and I was fully prepared for this to escalate, but then it didn't. Eric returned to carefully guiding steering the train, while Rhys provided extra momentum.

Part of learning to speak out is also knowing that we still might not get everything we want. It's called compromise, which is what should happen when agendas clash, especially those that really aren't all that important.

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relying on God said...


Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

I enjoy reading abour your very human interactions with your kids, and this is a good, thoughtful post. Learning to compromise, and get along with our fellow human beings is something we adults need to relearn sometimes, I think.