Monday, February 10, 2014

Everyone Protecting Everyone

There are no off-limits topics at Woodland Park. The subjects we push underground, only become more glamorous in their mystery, so when the subject arises naturally, we have frank and honest conversations about body parts, babies, sex, violence, race, or whatever comes up in our play. I try to stick to facts and stating my own opinion without judgement. I've learned to stay calm, even when the things said inflame me. The following dialog was really quite light despite the subject matter. We do this all the time, negotiating our agreements with one another. I could have made this an emotionally charged situation, I could have become scold-y, but I'm glad I managed not to. I think we wound up in a good place without anyone feeling ashamed of "mistakes" they may have made while exploring something dark.

On Friday, a group of boys got outside first. They've been spending a lot of time figuring out their "teams" lately ("I'm on your team," "Are you on my team?" "Are we bad guys or good guys?") usually eventually settling on everyone being on the same team. 

"What does our team do?"

"We're going to catch the girls, then we're going to kill them."

I know it looks shocking here in print, but it was offered as a kind of joke. I said, keeping an even tone, "I don't think the girls will like that. I don't think anybody wants to get killed."

"We're just going to chase them and pretend to kill them."

"Do you think the girls will like that?"

"Don't tell them."

"We have to tell them. We have to ask them if they want to be caught and killed. Those are our rules."

"Teacher Tom, you'll ruin our trap."

"I don't think they'll like being trapped either. I think I should ask them."

Usually, I send the kids to do their own asking, but most of the girls were still inside, eating a snack together. The kids don't always divide themselves up by gender, but today they had. "Hey," I said, "The boys outside want to know if the girls want to be caught and killed."

They answered, "No!" together.

"I didn't think so. Do you want to pretend to be caught and killed?" 

Only one of them thought that might be a fun game.

"So, I'll tell them you don't want to be caught and killed and only one of you want to pretend to be caught and killed. Do you want to be trapped?"

They answered, emphatically, that they didn't want to be trapped.

As I started toward the door to carry the message back outside, one of the boys at the snack table called out, "I want to protect the girls."

Then another, "Me to, I want to help protect them."

In fact, all of the boys at the snack table agreed they wanted to be on the girl's team and protect them.

When I returned outdoors, the boys were still scheming. I reported what I'd learned: "The girls don't want to be caught and killed and only one of them wants to pretend to be caught and killed. None of them want to get trapped . . . Oh, and you should know that all the other boys have decided they're going to protect the girls."

For a moment we all stood in silence, then one of the boys said, "I want to protect the girls too."

"Me too."

By the time we were done, all the boys agreed they were going to protect the girls.

When the girls came outside, the boys chased the girls chased the boys, wildly, around and around our outdoor space, all flushed and breathing hard, chasing without catching, everyone protecting everyone.

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Stephanie Goloway said...

This is such a wonderful example of what happens when we trust children to think, and to care. Instead of jumping in and BEING that trusted them to reflect on what each other wanted and needed. Thank you. I'm always inspired by the way you communicate with kids.

Unknown said...

So awesome. Children are so good.

Unknown said...

I am a regular follower of your blog and very much appreciate the work you do. However, the resolution of this post left me a bit uncomfortable. I am wondering why the conversation stopped with a commitment to boys protecting girls. I appreciate that some of the children were willing to support other children and not be silent bystanders, but I am concerned that in our society women and girls (and men and boys) too often learn that women need men to protect them (especially from other men). While being caught and killed may sound more violent, learning to identify as a victim, an aggressor, or a protector is also a closing of space for identity.

My son is in preschool and I know his school faces similar challenges. As a parent, and on the spot, I very much doubt that I would have responded as calmly and thoughtfully as you did to the situation. However, given that I have time to sit and ponder, I also wonder if there could have been a way to allow children to offer one another protection (or to choose to protect themselves) in a way that did not fall along gender lines or otherwise reinforce a binary understanding of gender?

I'm curious whether you or other readers have thoughts on this.

Thank you again for the work you do and for sharing so much of it with us.

Teacher Tom said...

@EEL . . . I can see it that way too, but that's not what happened. It was friends choosing to protect friends.

There are many of us who believe that what others see as violent/aggressive play stems from the urge to protect -- nurturing and protecting being fundamental instincts that go all the way back to our hunter-gatherer past. I'm quite proud that this protective instinct came out. Everyone felt pretty good about it.

Anonymous said...

This was not about gender at all. I have heard girls scheme against boys on the playground and i have seen girls valiantly come to a boy's rescue. This was a lesson in empathy and respect. Not about girls needing boys for protection.