Friday, August 21, 2020

"Rivalry Play"

A five-year-old girl complained that some boys were being "mean" to her and her friend.

I answered, "Oh no, what did you do?"

"I told them to stop it, but they didn't stop."

I looked across the playground at the "mean" boys in question. "It doesn't look like they're being mean right now."

"No, they're not being mean now, but they were."

"And you told them to stop."

"I did."

"And they stopped."

We stood looking at the boys for a moment, then she said, cheering up, "They did." Then the clouds returned, "But they might be mean again."

"They might. Then you'll have to tell them to stop again."

This occurred during one of our summer sessions at Woodland Park, so it was a collection of kids that had just come together for the first time. Some of them know each other from the regular school year, some from previous summers, but others are with us for the first time. I'd known the so-called "mean" boys for the past couple years, neither of whom have a mean bone in their bodies, but I could well imagine that whatever game they were playing might have come into conflict with the game of someone else. I'd just met the girl who had complained and her friend, a boy. Despite the tattling, however, it's clear to me that they are both sufficiently practiced in the playground arts. I didn't think they really needed me, but I nevertheless kept an eye on the four of them for the rest of the morning.

There was definitely a "them vs. us" dynamic. The boys were messing with the newcomers in a way that was meant good-naturedly, even if it wasn't being received that way. At one point a toy was mischievously taken, then returned sheepishly when it resulted in an uproar. The newcomers were firm in establishing their rights, even as the others seemed driven to test them. By the end of the day, things were more or less settled with the pairs opting to play distinct and separate games. The good news for me was that after that first exchange none of them sought my intervention. This is what they worked out on their own.

On the following day, we started with a bit more friction, although the negotiations tended to be carried out in more conversational tones rather than the raised voices from the day before. At one point I overheard the girl say, "Okay, if you don't be mean to us, you can come in here, but only for three minutes," a conditional invitation that the boys accepted with glee.

The day after that, one boy from each of the vying parties arrived on the scene earlier than their respective friends. They immediately fell into play with one another, the rivalry of the past two days set aside for the time being and put their heads together like old buddies. 

This was far from the first time I'd encountered "rivalry play." Indeed, it crops up regularly in any group of four and five-year-olds, kids banding together "against" one another, sometimes along gender lines, but usually along some other fracture like "good guys" and "bad guys." Sometimes there are taunts. Thefts are common. And, of course, there is conflict, which I think is often the real driving force behind this kind of play. Many of us adults have learned to be conflict averse, but the kids who involve themselves in these games, and at one time or another most of them do, seem to crave the conflict, almost as if they know they need the practice. I'm there to prevent violence, to coach if necessary, and to step in when the strong are victimizing the weak, but every time I impose my adult-ness onto these games I worry that I'm preventing them from learning what they crave to learn, so my goal is to stay out of it, while loitering with intent.

After a few minutes of playing together, the boys came up to me to announce, "Guess what, Teacher Tom? He told me that they aren't going to be mean any more!"

I said, "Right on!"

The boys stood face to face, holding one another's hands. They began to giggle while jumping up and down. When their friends arrived, they informed them of the agreement they had forged. To an outside observer the games the four played for the rest of the day may have been indistinguishable from the games they had been playing on the previous two. There was still plenty of bickering, badgering, and bossing, but now it was conflict amongst friends and no one was being "mean."


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