Night Games

One of the ironies of writing a book about the need for kids to move around and play rough is that I am spending hours sitting and writing. Last week I spent an hour in a coffee shop writing about the dangers of sitting.

I do move around during my day job, trying to keep up with ten four-year olds. But at night, I am often sitting down to write, or sitting down to watch something.  Last Sunday, I was sitting down with my family watching a movie when my phone buzzed. There was a cryptic message from a friend. “Night games. 9:00 at the park.” It was from Julian. Julian is one of those rare souls who truly did not forget how to play.

Art Sled Rally
Art Sled Rally

He is the founder of some of my favorite events here in the Twin Cities. One of those events is the Powderhorn Art Sled Rally where people are asked to decorate a sled and go down a hill at the end of January (often the coldest week of the year here in Minnesota so it can be -10F). He also created the summer camp Adventures in Cardboard where children use cardboard to fashion armor, swords, shields and magical items. The kids spend a week creating shops to sell magical items, battle other houses (there are six houses, each with its own mythology), storm castles and wind their way through labyrinths.

 

hillside-93-600x267Needless to say, we were going. I grabbed our flashlights, my wife called a few friends, and my daughter grabbed her sword. We arrived at the park a little before 9. There was one other car in the parking lot. It was dark, but our friends had a flashlight. It’s an urban park, not necessarily dangerous, but people are mugged here on occasion when walking alone at night. It was definitely not my usual destination on a Sunday night. We heard others on the hill under a street light. We walked up to find Julian, his son and daughter and three other teenagers. We had three tweens and four adults with us. It was time to play.

 

art-sled-rally-08-4372

Julian pointed out the boundaries and explained the rules for “Manhunt.” The four teens were the hunters. The rest of us had to hide. They would try to find us and tag us out, but we could sneak up on them and tag the hunters out. Off we went into the darkness. As I ran off to hide, my heart started to race. It was dark and it was possible to hide in the trees, but as I saw four shadows approaching, a sense of fear gripped me. It wasn’t a paralyzing fear, but that sense of fear you get on a roller coaster. You know you are safe, and yet your instincts are telling you that your body should not be dropping at 40 miles per hour. It was the feeling I had as a child when I played “Ghost in the Graveyard,” “Bloody Murder” and other variations on Hide-and-Seek.

This was much different than when I play chase with the preschoolers in my class. I have fun, but admittedly I am self-handicapping to keep the play going. Tonight I was trying my hardest and eventually running my fastest. It turns out I cannot outrun a teenager (I’m in my late 40s). All of us were trying our hardest and wavering between fear and elation. When we ran out of breath, we kept running anyways until we were tagged out. The 11 year olds, the teenagers, the adults, all were having a similar experience. The darkness helped equalize the experience a bit, and made it more exciting (and yes scary).

 

 

art-sled-rally-08-4363

Ready for adventure
Ready for adventure

 

It made me realize that this is what the preschoolers experience when I chase them. It’s not just that we are moving our bodies, there is also a sense of danger in a context of safety. Of course the kids could fall and scrape a knee, but they are not trying to outrun a wild animal. It’s a game and yet the emotions can react as if it were real. That is part of the play experience. And frankly, urban parks are often a place that can harbor fear, and yet a group of people can turn it into a place to play, and turn those fears into joy.

 

Side note: The images for this post are from Adventures in Cardboard and the Art Sled Rally. Check out the websites for more images, video and information:

http://artsledrally.com/

http://julianmcfaul.com/summer-workshops-2014/

Use Your Words

Teachers of young children often use the phrase “use your words.” It usually refers to the idea of using words to express dissatisfaction with another child rather than hitting them. I also used to use the phrase to remind children to ask before joining in play, but I have had to rethink that.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The problem is that most communication comes from nonverbal gestures. There are a lot of other skills besides using words that are needed to join others in play. For example, Greg and Neville are very close friends. They play together every day, often roughhousing. However, they do not start by asking if they can play rough. They have an understanding built on trust.

 

Here is a typical day in my classroom:

Neville crashed into Greg. I take a few steps forward. Like a police officer, I am assessing the situation as I approach. Is anyone hurt? Is a fight about to erupt? Did a fight already in progress? Do I need to call for back up? Neville looks up at Greg (he is a full head shorter). Neville is smiling. Greg meets Neville’s eyes, and he smiles, too. Then Greg tackles Neville to the couch. They erupt into laughter. I look around to see if the area they have chosen is safe for this type of play. They wisely chose the couch. I know that in a few minutes, Neville will cry. It almost always happens that he will get bumped a little too hard. Greg will stop the play and ask if Neville is OK. Neville will cry for about thirty OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAseconds and Greg will apologize. Then Neville will look at Greg’s face and smile. Greg immediately goes into play mode. The two are tackling each other.

It always starts with non-verbal communication. The two know that they are playing. They often tackle each other once or twice before they even talk about what they are playing. After the initial greeting-tackle, one of them will suggest a scenario.

 

“How about we’re superheroes?” “How about we’re Ninja Turtle?” “How about we’re lions that escaped from the zoo?”

Then play resumes. It is a mixture of verbal and non-verbal communication. If someone winces, the other often eases up. If someone starts laughing, the other will keep repeating the action that led to laughter. Sometimes they don’t even bother with a scenario. They simply enjoy the physical contact.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Greg and Neville have an existing relationship that allows them to not use their words. What about a third child? Greg and Neville often are joined by others who read the body language. If the two of them are rolling on top of each other, another child might also roll on top of one of them. Usually it works. Once in a while someone will say “stop.” The other child stops and trust is built.

 

If a new child joined our class, I would have to help them join other children who were playing.  I find that the most successful way of joining others is not to ask, “Can I play, too?” The first step is non-verbal. The child needs to play with similar materials. If a child is drawing, draw near them. If they are building with blocks, build near them. They also have to position themselves in the same way as the child they want to play with. If the child is sitting on the floor, the other child should sit on the floor. If the child is sitting at a table, the child sits at the table. If the play involves movement, the child entering play needs to move as well.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If pretend play is involved, the child should figure out the roles and choose a role to suggest. When they do finally speak, they need to use a tone of voice that is not too forceful or even a polite request will go unheeded. Even if the other children don’t agree with the role chosen, they will often choose a substitute. “You can’t be the Mom because we don’t have any parents. You can be the big sister.”

Children do need to use their words, but they need to express themselves with their actions as well.

 

Disruptions Don’t Always come from the Kids

Reading books to preschoolers is one of my favorite things about my job. If the classroom is getting a bit too rowdy for me, I know I can pick up a book and start reading out loud. By the time I turn to the second page, a few kids gather around. Soon, most of the class is sitting around me listening. I love the way kids this age become so engaged with the story that they call out when they see something in the illustrations, or they anticipate some of the lines in the book.

A teacher sitting crisscross applesauce
A teacher sitting crisscross applesauce

 

One of the most gratifying things as an author is reading my own books to kids. Now I hear kids call repeating words that I wrote. There is a child in another classroom at my center who has to point out each character on each page. “There’s Rita. There’s Johanna.” After pointing out everyone, he sits back down. When I turn the page, he stands up and points out everyone on that page. It’s great to have someone so excited about my book.

 

One time I was at another childcare center to read. As I turned the page, the illustration shows Bree holding up a worm. A child rose to his knees and pointed and said, “Look, a worm!” I was just about to say, “You’re right. She does have a worm.” I was thinking I could ask how many of the kids have found a worm. But I didn’t say anything because a teacher scolded the child telling him to sit quietly so I could read. I read the rest of the book, but I didn’t have any other enthusiastic kids calling out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the book I asked the kids questions and they asked me some questions. The kids had a lot to say, but every time they became a bit animated (kneeling, talking over each other) a teacher scolded them. It was hard to have a conversation because the teacher kept interrupting us.

On my walk to the bus, I realized none of the teachers commented on my books with the kids (or me). They thanked me for reading to the kids, but otherwise the only time they spoke was to scold the children.  It seemed that for the teachers the main learning experience was learning how to sit and wait for a turn to speak.

 

I find this often happens in preschool classrooms. More attention is spent on obedience than on the learning experience. Children are often told to sit “crisscross applesauce.” This refers to sitting on the floor with legs crossed.

In terms of learning, I have not been able to find a study that shows any more knowledge retention, or an increase in engagement when sitting this way. My own experience finds quite the opposite.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I think one of the reasons children are asked to sit that way is so they don’t disrupt the attention of others who are listening to someone speak. I don’t think there is anything wrong with telling children that they need to make sure everyone can hear or see. But there are many ways to sit without disrupting others. It can even include children leaning on each other.

 

In my classroom, I let children choose to sit or stand the way they want when I am reading a book. I do ask children to make sure others can see, so fairly quickly the kids and I find that the higher up you are, the further back you need to be. For example, if you want to stand, you go in back. If you want to lie down, you need to make sure no one is in front of you. I do have to remind children occasionally, but certainly no more than in classrooms where they are supposed to sit crisscross applesauce. The difference is, the kids in my room can look around and see the other kids and realize why they are moving. It is not because the teacher said so, but because the child behind them is saying, “I can’t see.”

 

I think this issue of enforcing compliance can lead to teachers scolding children more harshly. Rather than giving children a gentle reminder that someone behind them can’t see if someone stands in front of them, the teachers react as if the child is disrespecting them for not obeying. The child is just being a child who can’t sit in one position for long (just like many adults). If there is any disrespect happening, I think it might be coming from the teacher.

Police dog
Police dog

Painting or Dancing?

My favorite day of the year is coming up next Friday, Painting Day. Each year we do some unique painting activities in the morning. In the afternoon, we turn my classroom into a giant painting. Everything becomes a paint brush: brooms, bath scrunchies and eventually the kids themselves. About 45 minutes into it, as the teachers try to change the kids’ clothes and keep the paint contained to one room, I start to question the wisdom of the painting. Does it have to be so big?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Well, yes, it does have to be that big actually. I remember Bev Bos   writing about using vinegar and baking soda. She said that it wasn’t enough to have a cup of vinegar, it should be a gallon of vinegar and it should explode. The kids should be wonderstruck.

 

 

 

The kids walk into the room covered in white paper. The kids start by pumping paint into pie tins and using brushes. They paint the paper on the walls first. Then someone puts their hand in the paint and spreads the paint around on the walls. When some paint spills, someone will start sliding their feet around.

big painting 1

 

Slowly, kids leave to clean up. As the painting gets less crowded, the kids move around more. The painting turns into dancing. Kids roll around. They paint each other.

 

It gets a bit crazy, but the joy it brings is worth it.

 

 

side note: We started our Big Painting after seeing JAO create a “speed painting” of the Sistine Chapel.  See her create a speed painting here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTld-q3_AgU

Technical details:

  • We use the paper that photographers use for a backdrop. It’s 9 feet wide and comes in 60 foot and 150 foot lengths, available at photography supply stores.
  • We buy four gallons of cheap tempera paint with pumps.
  • We have brooms, bath scrunchies, pie tins, rollers, feather dusters, etc.
  • We tells parents to send clothes for the kids that might be destroyed.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Kids Will be Kids

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Boys will be boys.”

Usually this refers to the way some boys engage in rough-and-tumble play for much of the day and girls don’t. When I talk to other teachers who allow and encourage rough-and-tumble play, I get a very different picture. We all agree that big body play or rough-and-tumble play seems fairly mixed gender-wise. I have 8 boys and 2 girls in my preschool class this year, but about half the time someone asks me to get out the mats for roughhousing, it is a girl. When kids are piled on top of each other, there are girls and boys in the mix.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is research that shows that girls are more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play when the teacher does. It has been my experience that kids also participate in activities that the adults around them clearly love. It makes sense to me that if a teacher has fun roughhousing, most kids will participate regardless of gender.

000041251

As I work on my book on rough-and-tumble play, I keep thinking about gender, both the gender of the children as well as the gender of the teachers. I am always reluctant to talk about gender and behavior. I think that boys have certain tendencies and girls have certain tendencies, but there is a lot of crossover. In her book Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School, Barrie Thome observed young elementary school students. This age group is known for segregating themselves by gender, but Thome found that the vast majority (80%) of boys played with girls and the same percentage of girls played with boys some of the time.

Thome refutes the notion of separate “boy culture” and “girl culture.” Children may show a preference for others of their own gender, but it is not exclusive. This thinking of separate cultures with distinct behaviors can quickly cause adults to become essentialist in terms of gender.

For example, in Wired to Move: Facts and Strategies for Nurturing Boys in an Early Childhood Setting, Ruth Hanford Morhard suggests teachers “give boys opportunities for physical contact,” but then goes on to say, “Make sure the boys understand this kind of physical contact is fine with boys, but not with girls.” This otherwise excellent book makes the mistake of conflating a tendency of boys (and girls) into an absolute truth about the genders. There are boys who would not be OK with this contact and there are girls who would enjoy it. And yes, there are children that are perceived to be boys who may not have come to their full gender identity as a girl (or vice versa).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

All children need the freedom to move their bodies in the way they choose while respecting the rights of others regardless of gender. This means that many boys will crash their bodies into other boys, but some girls may be involved in this type of play as well.

 

 

 

Having said that, I think that the idea of “boy culture” could be useful. Boys are expelled from preschools at a much higher rate than girls. They are referred for special needs at a much higher rate as well. Meanwhile the teachers are almost exclusively women (at least 95% depending on what statistics you use). I am not claiming that there aren’t women who “get” rough-and-tumble play. And I am not concerned about how much of a behavior is learned and how much is biological. I am merely talking about the teachers’ responses to the full body expression of many boys and some girls.

I also think that there is culture within the field of Early Childhood Education with a wide array of variations within this culture. There is a tendency to favor sitting and reading books over other storytelling media (storytelling, acting, video). There is often a rejection of certain types of play such as violent-themed play and roughhousing that is common among boys. The result is a culture clash.

None of this is intentional. Many of these teachers may not have had the need to move as much as many of the boys (and some girls) in their classrooms. I am not implying that teachers are intentionally not meeting boys’ needs but rather they are unknowingly using their cultural expectations to determine what is acceptable.

hanging upside down

This becomes more pronounced when looking at African-American boys. The vast majority of teachers are white women. The intersection of race and gender present some unique concerns. As stated, boys tend to express themselves with their whole bodies in ways that teachers often view as disruptive. When African-American boys are behaving boisterously, the teachers might not only view it as disruptive, but they may attach some intentionality to it. They may perceive a child as being aggressive when they play this way, or perhaps even defiant. I think white boys are given a little more latitude (boys will be boys) even if they are also scolded.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I think all teachers need to look at their own preferences and recognize that they may not “get” why kids do certain things. They may be uncomfortable playing certain ways, but they can do it anyways knowing that they are trying something from a different “culture” that can be appreciated and accepted. They can let kids be kids.

 

 

 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Couch

I pushed the new couch into the nook with a feeling of satisfaction. It was supposed to fit with an inch to spare, but after spending a few hundred dollars, I didn’t relax until it was put in. It was just the right size for an odd indentation in my dramatic play area. I had a carpet that fit the rectangle of the space, leaving a two foot bald spot on one side. I was more than thrilled to find this couch that not only provided a cozy play space, but it also covered up the floor.

The couch becomes a canoe.
The couch becomes a canoe.

 

The first few weeks, the kids used the couch as a crib, a car, a couch, and a hospital bed. I had found a perfect solution to my problem. But then something happened. One of the kids figured out that if you pulled the couch out from the wall, it created the perfect hideout. The hideout also became a tree house, a tent, a bedroom. Every day it was something new. And every day, as the couch was pushed forward, the rug would scrunch up until it was getting ruined. And if that wasn’t enough the arm of the couch was chipping the paint a bit.

 

 

I tried to stop the kids from pulling the couch out. That didn’t work of course. I tried to be there when they moved the couch, but every time I walked over, the couch was moved and the rug was bunched up.

A hideout is discovered
A hideout is discovered

I tried to show them how to lift it on top of the rug. That wasn’t any more successful. I was getting quite frustrated. I could only flatten the rug back so many times before it was ruined. I could stay late and paint the wall, but how long would that last?

When I finally stepped back, I saw a different picture. The kids were showing me they wanted a small space to play in. They also seemed to take satisfaction in being the creators of this space. The stumbling block was the carpet, which was made up of smaller square tiles. I decided to remove one more row to see what would happen. It left a bigger bald spot, which bothered me, but I’ve lived with bald spots before.

 

The next day the kids pulled the couch out until it touched the rug. A father who worked as a contractor asked if I needed anything done and I showed him the chipped paint. He brought in a few scraps of wainscoting and covered the walls. Suddenly, the area looked inviting again. And the kids continued to use the space behind the couch.

 

The couch becomes a spaceship
The couch becomes a spaceship (with real wood wainscoting)

 

 

 

It doesn’t matter how many years I have been doing this, I still find myself taking on battles that I can’t win. When I focus on the needs of the kids, I can usually find a way where we both win.

Tired of Saying no

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO

 

Preschool classrooms are filled with rules: No running, no pushing, no throwing toys, etc. The rules are made with good intentions, but many of the rules essentially stop children from using their whole bodies in the classroom. It’s as if we are inviting only the head and perhaps hands into the classroom. Children resist this at every turn. It leads to frustration from all sides. As one teacher told me, “I’m tired of saying no all the time.”

NO RULES?
In the last few years I have used guidelines instead of rules. Dan Gartrell talks about the benefits of guidelines rather than rules in his book, Education for a Civil Society: How Guidance Teaches young Children Democratic Life Skills.
Rules talk about what children can’t do. Guidelines talk about what we can. Guidelines also allow for gray areas that often happen. For example, we have a loft in my classroom that looks down on the classroom on three sides. Originally I had a rule that you couldn’t throw things down from the loft. It seemed straight forward, but situations kept coming up that called this rule into question. A child made a paper airplane, and threw it from the loft. Then a few weeks later a group of children had a pillow fight with some throwing pillows from the loft. Later a child watched a tissue float down from the loft. None of these situations presented a safety concern. I could make a rule that lists all the things you can’t throw. I could even put a positive spin on it and list the things you can throw. But what happens when someone introducing something not on the list? What if someone crumples paper and throws it?
When I started using guidelines, I could say, “We take care of each other so we can’t throw toys form the loft because they are hard and could hurt someone.” When a child makes an airplane, I can say, “Are we still taking care of each other if you throw a paper airplane?” The child can figure out that no one will get hurt. Not only did I get rid of unnecessary rules, I am helping the kids to practice risk assessment in a safe way.

NO RUNNING?
This also brings up rules that many of us consider universal such as “No running in the room.” While running in the room in general might pose a safety concern that children may not be able to anticipate on their own. There is a lot of gray area in terms of what is running. For example: Is jogging OK? Isn’t a five-year old skipping more likely to result in falling that if the same child was running? I have found myself watching children “running” in the room with enough control to stay safe on several occasions. I have also watched kids “use their walking feet” and walk right into someone who was in their way. Is it really the speed that is the problem or the child being in control of their movement?

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

NO PUSHING?
In regards to the child who walks into another child, it is often a result of a still-developing vestibular sense rather than a deliberate act of aggression. What will the child learn if I say, “No pushing?” And if I have the rule “No Pushing” what about two kids who smile as they push each other? Can’t children roughhouse?
No running, No Pushing and No Throwing Toys can seem like universal rules, but in the end, I am convinced there are no universal rules, but I am convinced that there are universal guidelines. Using guidelines means that the children and I have to use our judgment when situations arise. It is good for the children to learn and it is good practice for teachers to always reflect on their actions.