Monday, June 03, 2024

Crying for Help

He was having a prickly day. Things were not going his way. He'd been in tears or enraged several times already, the toys with which he wanted to play were already being used, the other kids weren't doing what he wanted them to do, and the adults were failing in their attempts to make it all better.

He sulked up to the swings where he could be alone, hanging limply in one of them, using his feet to get a little momentum going, but without vigor.

I'd made various forays in pursuit of bucking him up: a hand on his back; chit-chat about the makes and models of cars, his hobby; an inside joke. I'd managed to get him to smile a couple times, to lean into me, to take me up on my offers of friendship, but we already like each other so it might have just been out of politeness. Right now, as he swung, I was keeping my distance, watching him deal with his prickly day in his own way.

After a few minutes of just hanging there, he tossed back his head and without volume or urgency, to no one at all, called, "Help."

I didn't move, nor did anyone else, and he didn't look around for a response either, lolling his head back to look up into the trees, tugging a little with his arms as if trying to get the swing going like that. Then louder, "Help!"

Still, I was the only one who heard him. The other adults were busy in other parts of the outdoor classroom. His closest friends were engaged in canal building in the lower half of our sand pit, an activity that for them usually involves lots of shouting out to one another, which makes it hard to hear cries of help from all the way at the top of the hill.

"Help! Help! Help!"

As his cry became more insistent I moved closer. I said, "You're calling for help."

"I want someone to push me." He wasn't asking me to do it. All the kids know I don't push kids in swings.

I nodded, "Like those kids over there?"

Sourly, "I don't care. I just want someone to push." Then, "Help!"

"I think you'll have to be louder."


That's when someone other than me finally heard him. 

"Oh no, someone needs a rescue!"

"Who is it?"

"To the swings!"

Most of the kids dropped their shovels as they swarmed in pursuit of his cries, "Help!"

Once there, they didn't need to be told what he needed. They got to work, helpers in a crisis, pushing their classmate who was now grinning ear-to-ear, still saying "Help," but with a laugh, the first I'd heard from him all day.

Now, imagine that this boy had a smartphone. Instead of sitting with his sadness, instead of simply being sad, feeling it, then calling for help, he would have become lost in a video game or a social media scroll. It might have temporarily distracted him from his sadness, but that's what phones take away from us if we don't remain vigilant: the ability to just sit there. It's why we text and drive, I think. Many of us are so afraid to be alone with our feelings that we risk the lives of ourselves and others.

One of the most important things any of us can learn is how to be alone with our sadness, despair, ennui, and frustration, to profoundly feel them. When we push them away with a smartphone or some other distraction, we never allow ourselves to feel completely sad or completely happy. At best we feel vaguely in between, comfortably numb.

When this boy cried for help he did so from the depths of his full feeling, that place where there is no ego, where even sadness is painfully poetic. Numb people will never know when or how to cry for help. He called out softly at first, as if not certain that anyone would come, but they did come, to the rescue, antibodies and endorphins racing to where it hurts. This is far from the only time that I've witnessed this phenomenon at preschool. It's as if we are detectors for a larger consciousness and our job is to race to the scene of pain when we're called. 

After awhile of being twisted, turned, pushed and pulled, all of which delighted him, the boy said, "Okay, okay, that's enough." When the kids ran back to their canal digging project, he ran with them.


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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