Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Sometimes It's Okay To Say, "You Can't Play"

We were playing with cardboard boxes and cardboard blocks. A group of three-year-olds discovered a game that involved standing in a rough circle around a box while drumming on it together with long blocks. Before long they began to chant which allowed them to find a mutual rhythm. Periodically, they would then all fall down on the ground in a kind of pig pile. After a lull they began their drumming again, repeating the cycle over and over, joyfully.

It was a noisy, full body game that attracted others, both as participants and observers. Before long, we ran out of long blocks. Some children allowed this to be their barrier to entry into the game, so they either moved on or griped while watching the game as an outsider. A few, however, simply picked up shorter blocks and attempted to join in. Unfortunately, the nature of shorter blocks meant that they had to stand closer to the box that was the target of their drumming, placing them in position to be hit and jostled by the longer blocks. Each time this happened, and it began to happen a lot, the child with the shorter block complained, "Hey, you hit me!" which meant the game had to momentarily stop.

Before long, this previously fun game was paused as often as it was in motion, which caused the game to lose much of its savor for the kids who had originally begun playing it. Not only that, but those complaining about not having long blocks began to become louder and more insistent. First one, then another of the long blocks were dropped to the ground as the game was given up by those who had discovered it. These abandoned blocks were then bickered and tussled over by the remaining children. The game resumed with an altered cast of participants. There was no chanting. They were not smiling. The joy had been sucked out of it.

Meanwhile, the three kids who had originated the game, moved off together to an empty space, picked up short blocks and began to play their game together, just the three of them, joyfully, beaming into one another's faces and chanting as they had when the game first spontaneously erupted. They were clearly having more fun than the others, whose game had devolved into a kind of dreary contest. 

Before long, however, a fourth child attempted to join this new game, to the annoyance of the three short block drummers.

"You can't play with us," one of them said. "You have the wrong kind of block."

The ground was covered with dozens of blocks identical to the ones being used in the game, but no matter which one the newcomer tried, he was told, "You have the wrong kind of block." They were excluding him based on what might have appeared to be arbitrary grounds, but having witnessed the entire episode, I knew that their exclusion was based on experience. The previous game had been fun until it had gotten too big and even though the children weren't able to put it into words, they had learned that three was the right number for this game of drumming with cardboard blocks on a cardboard box.

Few things in preschool are more icky, emotional, and complicated than when children exclude one another. Had I only tuned in during the second phase of this game, I would have likely interpreted their attempt to exclude as unfair and would probably have intervened in some way on behalf of the child being left out. But as it was, I knew that their reluctance to add another child to their game had a basis in reason and experience, even if their way of expressing it, of drawing the line, appeared arbitrary. This isn't to say that children (and adults) don't sometimes exclude one another arbitrarily, but only to point out that there is more gray area here than not, which is why children must explore it if they are to ever understand it.

I helped them with their words, "This game is a game for three people." Then I supported the boy who had been excluded, for a perfectly acceptable reason, to find two more children with which to play their own game of drumming on a cardboard box with cardboard blocks.


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"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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