Friday, March 13, 2015

"No Bad Guys"

Most years, there are certain play themes chosen by our five year old boys that cause concern. Usually, it's some version of "bad guy" play -- pirates, zombies, spies, superheroes. This year they're going with the generic "bad guy," which largely plays itself out as making fierce faces, posing threateningly, and attempting to capture one another, although it sometimes takes the form of attempting to dam up the "river" others are creating in the sand pit.

Typically, the concerns come up because other children begin to report, either to me or to their parents at home, that they're afraid of the "bad guys." It's a delicate balance between the perfectly normal interest of some children to explore the dark side of power and human nature and the perfectly valid desire to not be fearful at school, especially given that some kids are still working out the line between "real" and "pretend." Our parent community has been discussing the subtleties of how we ought to address this balance for a couple months now, both formally and informally, and we've had a lot of playground the circle time discussions among the kids as well, but last week Francis brought things to a head by proposing that we make a new rule: "No bad guys."

The children at Woodland Park make their own rules, a process that requires consensus. When Francis suggested her new rule, dueling cries rose up from those present, one side supporting her and the other against. It was clear that there would be no consensus, but that didn't mean it wasn't a good prompt for a public discussion, one that I hoped would at least get everyone's cards out on the table.

Once everyone settled down, we began to take turns by raising hands and sharing our thoughts on this proposed legislation. It became quickly evident to me that most of the children were actually in favor of banning "bad guy" play, with a small group of boys committed to continuing their favored game. 

I said, "I have an idea, how about everyone who wants to make the no bad guys rule move to that side of the rug and everyone who wants to keep playing bad guys move to that side." 

Gio piped up, "And if you don't care, sit in the middle," a move of diplomatic genius given that he knew he had friends on both sides of the divide. 

My knee-jerk idea had been to create a visual demonstration for our "bad guys" that showed that they were in the minority. Even with a large block of kids choosing the non-commital position in the center of the rug, it was immediately clear that most of the kids were all for banning bad guy play, with only five boys remaining staunchly against Francis' proposed rule.

I started with those in favor of the rule, giving them, one-by-one, the opportunity to tell the "bad guys" how their play made them feel, most of whom said they either felt afraid or angry. It was an oddly quiet and sincere five minutes during which everyone seemed to genuinely be listening to one another. As they spoke, some of the kids in the middle shifted to their side. 

When they were done, I turned to the "bad guys," asking, "And why do you guys like playing bad guys?" Each of them took a turn making their case, citing "fun" as their main support, although several made the point that it was "just pretend." A couple of the fence sitters moved to their side.

I then said, "We can't make Francis' rule because everyone doesn't agree, but some people are afraid and some people think it's fun. What can we do?"

After some discussion, most of which was just restatements of the already established pros and cons, the "bad guys" made what I thought was a brilliant and magnanimous offer, "How about we can be bad guys, but we act like good guys." This received widespread approval, but there remained a new minority of those who still supported an all-out ban. By this time, most of the kids were sitting in the middle of the rug, growing restless.

We had been at this discussion for quite some time, we had had a terrific air-clearing discussion in which everyone got to make their case, but now we were at a logger-head. It was obvious that the matter was not going to be addressed via the formal rules, at least not on this day.

I said, "It looks like we're not going to be able to make a new rule. Some people still want to play bad guys and some people still want them to stop."

And Gio piped up, "And some people don't care."

"And some people don't care . . . But I will remind everyone that we already have an important rule that we sometimes forget." I turned toward the list of rules we have mounted on the wall: "We all agreed, don't do anything to anybody before you ask them." I turned to the bad guys, "That means you have to ask people before being bad guys to them." I then turned to the rest of the kids, "And I want the rest of you to remember that it's just pretend and that you can always just tell the bad guys to stop." With that I looked back at the bad guys for their agreement on this point, "Right?" They nodded.

Later, when we moved from indoors to outdoors, I was prepared to help the children by reminding everyone about our discussion, but it was unnecessary because, for the first time all year, the "bad guys" chose to make mud soup with our playhouse kitchen supplies, while others swept sand back into the sandpit. 

I'm not necessarily expecting it to remain this way, but for one day at least, we really listened to one another.

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1 comment:

Barbara Zaborowski said...

Really listening should be the first step in any democracy. Want a career in Washington? (No, I didn't think so.)