Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Not Yet Discouraged Of Man

Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.  ~Rabindranath Tagore

I've written before about our 4-5's class and their superhero games. There is a core group of kids who arrive each day ready for that and nothing else. They've begun making plans even before they arrive, often choosing a particular costume or t-shirt or jacket, sometimes even having come up with a story line. We begin our days outdoors and the first of the superheroes to arrive generally mill about as they await their fellow superheroes. Sometimes they can't wait for their friends and start with me, detailing who they are, what powers they have, and what bad guys they will defeat. As friends arrive however I'm forgotten in the urgency of organizing their game:

     "I'm Batman!"

     "I'm Lego Batman!"

     "I'm Violet"

     "Who are you?"

     "I'm on your team today."

     "I can fly and turn invisible."

     "I have laser eyes."

They do this every day, even if it looks and sounds no different than the day before. It usually takes at least five minutes, sometimes longer, however, as they figure out the ground rules for the day. There are disagreements, especially when their plans clash:

     "I'm the Flash!"

     "No, I'm the Flash!"

And agreements:

     "We can both be the Flash. I'll be Flash one and you be
     Flash two."

This type of negotiation goes on throughout their play. In fact, it stands at the center of the game, but it's most intense as they convene.

Meanwhile, other kids arrive having anticipated other games, like playing with the cast iron pump or swinging or hunting for jewels. And yet others arrive seemingly with no plan at all, spending the first several minutes of their day observing until they find a place for themselves. Many of these kids are occasional superheroes, some days donning the cape, sometimes not. Once the core group has more or less organized themselves, they then begin recruiting from among these kids, "Are you a superhero?" If the answer is "no," they move on to the next, but when the answer is "yes" a whole new round of negotiation begins. 

A big part of the game is hanging out in their "hideout" or "space ship" or whatever, telling others "Superheroes only." It looks like exclusion, and on one level it is, but all one need do to be included is say, "I'm a superhero" and the gates are opened. Indeed, rather than exclusion it can be seen as an invitation to play, a kind of inducement to increase the population of superheroes. You can come up here if you join us in our game. Many kids have this figured out and play along, breezily saying, "I'm Wonder Woman" whether they mean it or not, speaking it like a password. (A few, of course, don't see it this way and instead feel intimidated which is what lead to our big discussion a few weeks ago, but most accept and understand the deal.)

There have been a few experiments with real exclusion, of course, the kind where others are told some version of "You can't play," but those have been short lived because the superhero game is less fun with fewer people. No, the goal is a big, rowdy game and the kids have figured out that that can't happen if they aren't essentially accommodating and inclusive. In fact, I think this is why the game is so compelling for the kids. Sure, they love experimenting with power through their role playing, but what keeps bringing them back is that it's really a new game every day, one that is shaped anew by all the agreements they have to make with one another to keep the game going, to maintain it day-after-day, hour-by-hour and even minute-to-minute.

In his book Free to Learn, Peter Gray discusses the importance of the freedom to quit in children's play. He argues that the drive to keep the game going causes children to really listen to and accommodate one another, because if they don't kids will start quitting and if too many vote with their feet the game disappears along with them. This is why in a game of street baseball, the 10-year-old doesn't need anyone to tell her to go easy on the five-year-old: if you want the game to keep going it has to be fun for everyone so we toss the ball gently rather than doing our best to strike him out.

Yes, the whole superhero business can be messy and fraught with conflict. There are times when it isn't pretty, when people cry, but for the most part when I step back and watch it, I'm moved almost to tears by what I see: children coming together of their own accord, working to reach meaningful agreements, making space for one another, persuading and being persuadable, setting aside objections in deference to a friend, and ultimately discovering that sometimes it's a bridge too far and the only option is to exercise your freedom to quit. 

We adults have a lot to learn from how children play with one another when left to their own devices, without constant grown-up intervention. In fact, they inspire me in the way heroes always do: it's why I'm not yet discouraged of man.

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