Thursday, September 26, 2019

Teaching The Children A New Game

Among the first games we play with our babies is some version of give-and-take. We show an object to them and they take it from us wth their little fingers. As they get a little older, they often enjoy a more advanced version of the game in which they hand the item back to us, then take it again, then give, then take, delighting in the pattern, the cooperation, the interaction. Over time, we stop recognizing it as a game, it's just part of how we interact as we play with our kids. If they snatch a block from our hand as we're building them a tower together, we hardly notice it. If they commandeer the book we are reading to them to turn their own pages, we find it cute. If we're rocking a doll in our arms and our child wants to imitate us, no words are spoken as they take that doll as their own.

This is all as it should be at home, but as any parent with older children will attest, it's not a game that goes over well with other kids. As adults we don't attach any particular value to playthings, indeed we tend to think of them as rightfully belonging to the children, but other kids, be they older siblings or preschool classmates, tend to be far from sanguine about having valued things snatched from their grasp. At any given moment at this time in the school year, there is likely to be a child who is upset about it and a child who is equally confused about the fuss. After all, this is how they've learned the world of play works: I want something, I take it.

As a preschool teacher, I do not allow children to snatch things from my hands. Whenever I see a tiny fist reaching for the object I'm holding I tighten my grip and say, "I'm using this." I then follow that up with something like, "If you want it, you can ask me for it," or "You can play with it when I'm done." If the child is very young, I then relinquish it almost instantly. With older children, I might play with it for a few seconds, or even minutes, before saying, "I'm done with it. Now it's your turn." My objective is to simply role model a pattern of interaction that I hope becomes, so to speak, a new "game" for the children to play.

The other day, we were playing with our Fisher-Price toys, a significant collection amassed over the decades as families have donated their old toys to the school. The big plastic tub contains dozens, if not hundreds of those squat figurines representing both people and animals. A group of children were struggling with snatching and emotions were on edge, so I sat beside the tub, picked out a polar bear, saying as I held it up, "I found a polar bear." As I expected, one of the children immediately reached out to make a grab. I pulled it back, "Hey, I'm using this!" She looked stunned. I then said, "If you want it, you can ask me." She said, "Please?" and I handed it to her, saying, "Sure, I'm done with it now."

I then proceeded to remove other animals from the tub, "I have a tiger," "I have a parrot," "I have a bear," and so on. Children gathered around. At first many hands grabbed for the toys and I went through the process again and again. Soon, as you would expect, the children began to catch on, many of them clearly delighted with the game we were playing. Occasionally, I would answer them with, "In a minute, I'm still using it," or "I'll give it to you when I'm finished," an addition that the children accepted with apparent patience. Before long they were playing it with one another, practicing both sides of the equation.

I'm under no illusion that we will be a snatch-free classroom going forward. Old habits die hard, but we have plenty of time -- weeks, months, years -- plenty of time to learn new ones.

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