Kids Will be Kids

 

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“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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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

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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?

 

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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.

Quiet and Loud

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Who needs books when you have pillows
Who needs books when you have pillows

I was renovating my book area in my classroom. It’s small, no room for a chair. But that was OK. I wanted to make it cozy. I put a cushion along the wall with matching pillows. I pictured children sitting together or with an adult, leaning on the pillows or each other and looking at books in a quiet and peaceful setting. I knew this was a great way for children to bond with each other or with a teacher.
Within a few minutes, Nate picked up a pillow and threw it at Calvin. Soon they were both tossing pillows back and forth. Time to put away my intentions and observe the intentions of the children. I could become disappointed that I failed, or I could open my eyes and see that they are bonding. It might not be a book. It might not be quiet. But with each bop of a pillow, they are creating bonds that are the building blocks of friendship.
This was the only way I saw Nate express friendship. Nate and I had a good relationship, but he was not what I would call cuddly.
One day, Molly was wearing a red cape with a hood. Nate told her he was the Big Bad Wolf. She started to run and he chased her. My first instinct was to tell him that they can’t run in the classroom. It’s not really a rule. We use guidelines not rules and the guideline is “WE TAKE CARE OF EACH OTHER.” So I watched closer to see if they were taking care of each other.
The two were in control enough that they didn’t bump into chairs or tables. Then I noticed something even more impressive. If someone walked in the path they were using, Nate would change paths about ten feet before he reached that person (By this time Nate had run so far ahead in their circular path that Molly was now chasing him). He did it three different times so I know it wasn’t just a fluke.
They continued this game for about ten minutes and then Nate stopped at the book shelf. He grabbed Little Red Riding Hood (the book, not Molly) and breathlessly asked me to read to him. I leaned against the cushions in the book area and Nate rested his head on my arm while I read. We read three more books.
Nate and I did bond while sitting quietly, but he needed to play boisterously first. He didn’t have to choose between a quiet activity or a loud one. He needed both.

Catching Up with Duke

flying
flying
hanging upside down
hanging upside down

000041251I am currently working on a book called Teaching with the Body In Mind. It is a book aimed at teachers and caregivers of young children. The book addresses the need for more rough-and-tumble play and Big Body Play for young children. My blog will be focusing on some of the same topic for the next few months.
I want to start with a story from early in my teaching career (about 23 years ago). It’s about a man named Duke. I haven’t thought about Duke in a while, but I was speaking at the MN Fatherhood and Family Services Summit and the story came to me.
Duke was one of the Dad’s at the childcare center I worked at in the early 90s. Duke was unemployed at the time when our cook left. Our director offered him the job. Duke gladly accepted and we were soon enjoying the lunches he cooked as well as his visits to the classrooms. The kids loved having him visit, and Duke clearly loved being there.
After a few weeks, the director asked if he wanted to substitute for one of the aides in the afternoon. Soon he was subbing a few times a week in one of the classrooms. Our classrooms were fairly typical of the time. There was a block area with plenty of blocks, a dress up area with lots of costumes, several choices of toys and lots of art supplies. But when Duke was in the classroom, most kids forgot about all our precious materials. They wanted to play with Duke.
Duke offered the children something me and the other teachers did not. Duke loved to roughhouse. If he was in the room, he usually had one kid in his arms (often upside down) with two or three kids grabbing his legs, everyone shrieking in delight.
I hate to admit it, but we other teachers often asked Duke to tone it down. At best we tolerated Duke’s roughhousing, but we certainly didn’t try to emulate or even learn from him. Looking back, I can see that Duke was giving children something they desperately need.
Research now shows what Duke instinctively knew. Rough-and-tumble play is good for children and it is a great way for an adult to connect with children. It only took me 20 years to catch up with Duke.

The Whole Child, The Whole Day

We were moving. I was an enlightened teacher. I knew children need to move as part of their healthy development. It was morning group time and I was having the children move to music, creating a story that matched the mood of the music. We were lions waking up and then running and leaping. All of the children were moving and contributing ideas. Well, almost everyone.

Greg had ducked behind a shelf. I tried to get him involved, but he said he was tired. I gently tried a few more times, but didn’t want to pressure him. Maybe next time I can get him moving, I thought.

Soon I had the lions wash their paws for snack. Greg waited until the others were done and washed his own hands. As we finished snack and got ready for freeplay, Greg told me he was going to “attack the bad guys.”

Suddenly, this quiet child put on a mask and pretended to shoot at all the bad guys. He leaped to his right, ducked behind the couch, rolled on the ground and stuck his wand out again. Soon a few other boys joined him.

Greg added a police hat and a tool belt, and he was ready for round two. Sometimes they attacked the bad guys. Sometimes they jumped and rolled on each other. It was as if something inside Greg had woken up. Something I was unable to do with my planned activities. I thought I was an enlightened teacher, but I realized I knew nothing.

I am exaggerating, of course, but the thing about teaching is that just when you think you know what you are doing, you realize there is more to learn. I knew children need to move, but I didn’t always reOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ready for the bad guys
Ready for the bad guys

cognize it. The truth is, a few years ago, I would have told Greg and the other boys to calm down when they started roughhousing. The very thing that got them moving, for Greg the only thing.

Planning movement activities is not enough. Getting children outside for long periods of time is not enough. Having a mat set aside for boisterous rough-and-tumble play is not enough. Children need a sense of power, a chance to take risks, and a choice in how they move their bodies throughout the day.

Greg, and many others like him do need to move their bodies, but they might not do it when the teacher plans it. We can’t address a child’s physical development for fifteen minutes and then move on to the child’s literacy skills the next fifteen minutes. We need to be aware of the whole child the whole day.