Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The Lava Sisters

The Lava Sisters live on the slopes of our concrete slide, always in danger, always fiercely protective of their kingdom. Technically, there are only two of them, but at any given moment one can find a handful of lava hangers-on, attempting to master the lava skills, playing the game together.

The Lava Sisters have been weaving their story together for weeks now, a playground story built upon the most powerful sentences known to humans: the ones that begin with the invitation words, "Let's pretend . . ." or, as the story starts to become more real, the shorthand of, "Let's . . ."

Every day, the girls tie a half dozen ropes at the top of the concrete slide, left dangling down to be used to ascend and descend the slope. The girls have taken to tying the bottom end around their waist for "safety" often hurling themselves down the slope, then allowing it to catch them "just in time!" Only one of the Lava Sisters knows how to "tie," a skill in high demand this year, the way whistling or snapping fingers have trended in previous years. Among the hangers-on, there is a lot of asking one another, "Do you know how to tie?" as they hunt for a classmate who can help them join the glamorous sisters on the slopes of our dangerous volcano.

I'm aware that ropes dangling down slides can present a hazard, a choking danger, which is why we remove the ropes at the end of our play, and why an adult is always positioned nearby, watchfully. But, each day, the ropes are reattached and the game recommences.

To those adults watching, the game might not look like a lot of fun. Those faces are rarely smiling, their eyebrows are always lowered, and there are is almost constant bickering, especially as "intruders" attempt to enter into the play. Like I said, a big part of the game is to be fiercely protective and there is a lot of fierce language being used, often shouted.

Several times a day, a child, usually a boy, will run up to me with a complaint about the Lava Sisters, usually along the lines of, "They aren't letting me play," and I send him back, saying something like, "Did you remind them of our rule? You can't say you can't play," and they'll go back to engage in more bickering. To their credit, the Lava Sisters have rarely told anyone they can't play. What they usually do, however, is insist that if others want to join them on the volcano, then they must pick a role in the game already in progress, which is, I think, fair. After all, one of the unwritten corollaries to "You can't say you can't play," is that you also can't just come in and scuttle a game in progress by insisting, say, that the lava kingdom is your Star Wars ship. 

What complicated stuff they're working on up there on those slopes, not only navigating the physical challenges and the full-body physics of ropes, slopes, and a slab of concrete, but sustaining their "Let's pretend . . ." story while fending off both imaginary and real threats to their survival. No wonder they look so fierce so much of the time.

Over the last few years I've come to appreciate that this is much of what free play is for older preschoolers, bickering, which could more politely be called "negotiating." When the Lava Sisters are left alone for a spell, they invariably set out on adventures that seem for all the world to be designed to re-ignite the bickering: it's that important to the game. And, perhaps surprisingly, I've come to realize that it's the bickering that makes the game so attractive to the hangers on, who come flocking up the slope each time the words get heated.

There was a time, earlier in my career, when I saw it as my job to help bring the bickering to an end, only to find myself frustrated as it erupted over and over despite my best efforts. Now, I'm more inclined to just let it flow, like lava down a slope, sometimes sitting off to the side with a few kids, commenting on the battles being waged, the emotions being displayed, and the solutions arrived at, staying out of it as they work on skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

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FreetobeaChild said...

Oh, boy, did I need this reminder today; the bickering has been wearing me down this week! I love your perspective; thank you.

I also love that it is "sisters" who have the control of the powerful heights. Says a lot for the equality of your classroom.

French Valley K-Prep Preschool said...

I love reading your posts about the children doing things that other adults might find dangerous or risky. When I first started my preschool, I was alone and I would let my students do things that others might not approve of like climbing the slide, flipping over while using the trapeze bar, and running while holding on to a long rope (so fun for the person on the end). THEN I grew my business and hired assistants. They were the ones that said, "No". How do you handle other adults who say, "No"?