Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Excluding And Including

"But I want to play with you."

"We don't want to play with you. You keep following us around. We need space." I recognized her mother's coaching. A year ago there had been a child who had pestered her to play all day long, day-after-day and it had been, in part, this advice about needing space that had helped curtailed it. She was trying it again.

"I just want to play with you."

"You can't because we need space." She was referring to herself and her best girlfriend.

He stood in place, looking dejected. Just then another girl entered the scene, "Can I play with you?"

"Sure . . ." she answered, then stopped, looking at the boy she had just rejected, then at her friend as if casting about for a rationale. Then she had a bright idea. "This is a game for girls only. No boys. That's why you can't play with us." It's a common enough gambit around the preschool, to evoke gender as a dividing line.

"I just want to play too."

"It's a girl game . . . " she began before being interrupted by her friend. "It's okay, he can play." She looked back and forth between the girl and boy, as if torn between the competing loyalties of friendship and fairness. "But he has to be our brother, right?"

Everyone accepted this solution and the game continued.

Who can play and who can't is among the most fraught aspects of life in preschool. As the adult, my instinct is to advocate for some version of universal inclusion, but I know that to expect this in preschool is to insist the children attempt to do something that no humans have ever succeeded in doing. There are always people who we exclude from any group in which we find ourselves: there are always lines to define who is "in" and who is "out." Sometimes they are common sense exclusions like when a room is full to capacity and the late comers must be left on the street or when an individual has history of disruptive or violent behavior. Sometimes the lines are outright arbitrary or even cruel, and meant that way. If adults are still figuring it out, and we all are, every day, then it's only natural that children must struggle with this as well. Indeed, many of our political, social, and cultural divisions are, at bottom, questions over who we will allow "in" and who we will keep "out."

The following day, the two girlfriends were once more playing together. They had "adopted" our entire menagerie of giant plastic insects and were discussing building a block home for them. The boy again approached, "Can I play with you?"

"No . . . " She had said it reflexively and was now casting about for a reason: she knew she needed a reason. Finally, she fell back on the one from the previous day, "This is only a game for girls."

"Please," he whined. He looked as if he were about to cry.

"But . . . " she began to object before halting. I don't know what stopped her, of course, but as she looked into his face as it crumpled toward tears, I can't help but think it was empathy. We all have vast experience in being rejected, even preschoolers. We've felt it and know how it must feel in others. "But . . . " she said again, trying, I think to find a way to merge her desires with his.

Then her friend said, "We just want to play with each other right now. We're two mommies with all our babies. We'll play with you later."

This brightened him up. He said, "Okay . . . I could build the castle while I'm waiting."

The girls looked at one another as if for confirmation before saying it together, enthusiastically, "Yeah!"

The girls then huddled together with their pile of plastic insects as this boy who they had included built a castle around them.

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