Thursday, October 29, 2015

"When Is Wrestling Time?"

Wrestling is a part of every preschool's curriculum, although it's typically it falls into the category of an extracurricular activity. Stereotypically, it's 4-5 year old boys who spontaneously engage in it, although teachers find themselves separating girls and younger children as well. When I first began teaching 15 years ago, I knew nothing about this phenomenon, and like most teachers, I think, I at first responded without really thinking, figuring that it was my job to scuttle what looked like a version of fisticuffs. I would say, "Now is not wrestling time."

Then one day, a boy asked me eagerly, "When is wrestling time?" I answered rather dismissively with one of those classic adult dodges that leave children frustrated, "Not now," but it was a good question, one I took home with me that day. I had enjoyed this sort of wrestling as a boy, usually with my brother who is only 20 months younger, but the kid who had asked me this didn't have siblings at home. When is wrestling time? Well, I decided, it would have to be at school.

The following day I threw down some gym mats, explained that wrestling is a sport with certain rules, and said, "Now is wrestling time."

We start with a short meeting, where we confirm that no one wants to get hurt, then agree to a few special rules to make that less likely to happen. Each group of kids shapes a somewhat different set of rules, but these typically form the core of our agreements:

  1. Wrestling happens on the mats
  2. If someone says, "Stop!" everyone stops
  3. Keep your hands off people's heads and necks
  4. Hitting and kicking are not part of wrestling
  5. No running on the mats (being slammed by a kid with a head of steam can really hurt)
  6. No knee drops onto people
  7. If you get hurt (and people always get hurt wrestling) you can sit in the "crying seat" until you're ready to come back
  8. If you get angry, you need to leave the mats until you're not angry any more

We also find ourselves making new rules on the fly, depending on what's happening. For instance, one year a boy with aikido skills was literally throwing his classmates, so we said that "if you throw someone down, you have to fall with them."

The beautiful part is that it works, not because of the rules, but because the children genuinely don't want to hurt themselves or one another. I recently wrote a post about how we often expect children to respond to questions or requests too quickly, how the rule of thumb is that we need to allow them 12-15 seconds to process and respond. I've found that not to be the case when it comes to wrestling. When a friend at the bottom of a pig pile cries "Stop!" the children are so fully attuned to, and focused on, one another that they respond almost instantly. In fact, much of the time, even in the midst of what looks like a fracas, you will see that they are constantly checking one another's faces, even studying them in an intuitive and ongoing effort to read their friends' emotions, even while attempting to manhandle their bodies. And, of course, this is the reason we wrestle: not because we want to hurt one another, but because we love our friends so much. The goal is not dominance or submission, but rather to have a wild, sweaty good time and to do that we need to take care of one another.

Researchers tell us that this sort of rough-and-tumble play is necessary for many children and is a pathway to greater self-regulation, empathy, and understanding. This week, as the 4-5 year olds have wrestled, I've witnessed them practicing this sort of care for one another even while engaged in intense, body-on-body fun.

Of course, children get hurt, and as our rules suggest we indeed have a "crying seat," where I send the children who bump their heads or (which is more often the case) feel momentarily overwhelmed and need a break. It may sound a little heartless, I suppose, but the kids, even the ones who generally tend to seek more TLC than others, come to accept the bumps and bruises as a "natural consequence" of choosing to engage in wrestling. And much the way children using glue guns learn to shake off the occasional burn in order to not interrupt their creative flow, our injured wrestlers tend to be back on the mats within a matter of minutes.

This take-down sequence is a good example of how wrestlers care for one another even while falling to the ground together.

While it's true that most of the wrestlers are boys, girls find their way to the mats as well and more than hold their own. Indeed, over our past two wrestling sessions this week, for a total of about 1.5 hours, 16 of our 23 four and five year olds gave it a go.

I still think back gratefully to the boy who asked me, "When is wrestling time?" Sadly, for too many children, the answer is, "Never," and I would assert that the world is a poorer place for it.

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Sharon said...

Hmm... maybe I should do this. I become frustrated with all the wrestling and roughhousing. I have younger kids, but having a more structured wrestling time, with rules, might be helpful. Thank you!

Unknown said...

So I'm not the only 'crazy' one lol! One year I had a large group of boys who just constantly wanted to wrestle and All I was doing was trying to get them to stop. One day, I gave up and thought why not let them, but with rules. It was a huge success and yes, the girls joined in too. I love your addition of the crying seat. I will give this a go too ��

Sandy said...

What a fantastic idea! All species of primate and most mammals do this as part of their developmental play. If you watch a litter of puppies or kittens at play, you will see that the very rules you talk about are in place. If there is a cry of real pain, they generally stop! If one is upset, they remove themselves from the arena until they are ready to rejoin.
As the mother of twins, (who are about to turn 30! Yikes! Where did that time go?), I remember this rough-housing going on in-utero! Within a very short time after they were born there was some sort of entanglement. I decided early on that they were basically the same size and weight so, evenly matched and I let them go. Apart from the odd split lip, I don't think they ever really hurt eachother. (That I know of!) And they are still great mates. Yes, let's let the children play. Let's let the children dictate the play.... it is what is natural.

Kena said...

My daughter does this at preschool too, although their version states that only two kids wrestle at a time, with the onlookers serving as judges and referees, upholding the standards of gentleman/gentlewoman play (saluting, shaking hands afterwards, playing fair).

Nerd Girl said...

I wish I could do this with my kids (also four and five year olds). We even have the mats in the room across from mine. Sadly, no wrestling is a center-wide rule. :-( This is one of my regrets about working in a facility that is bound by archaic rules made by people whose interest is in preventing lawsuits instead of giving kids the best possible care to learn and grow.