The Lawlessness of Play

Three boys and a girl have created a “secret base” on the playground.  There is a plastic slide surrounded by plastic tables and chairs.  The dark cubby created underneath the slide is a “trap”, which is empty.  The four creators of the fort sit on the tables, and anyone who comes up and wants to go in the fort or play are deemed “guards” - a way for the children to try and balance their desire to not have anyone else play, and the “open to one, open to everyone” agreement at the school.Crawling across the woodchips is O, age 5.  He doesn’t want to be a guard.  He wants to be a bad guy.  More specifically, his “bad guy” means to wreck havok on this particular secret base.


If you work with young children, you have been in this situation.  I walk that line between letting children do whatever they please all of the time and telling them exactly what to do - perhaps that is a simple definition of teaching.  In this situation with O, they gave him a role he could play (guard) to be included in the game.  He wants one thing only: to be a bad guy who tries to steal things from the secret base.  In this situation, O is fine executing his plan without the approval of others - he might as well be playing on his own, engaging himself in his story of a thief.


These kids don’t need more than this to be engaged.  They don’t need a logical plot, a static setting, or a protagonist.  They simply need to figure out how things work.  If someone runs at you, screaming at the top of their lungs, can you stop them by touching the fence and yelling “base”?  Maybe.  Our teacher advice - “stop please” or “no” - is heard plenty.  Sometimes, children have conflict in play, and they use elements of the play to stop the conflict and stay in the play rather than interrupting it by getting out of character.  Grabbing onto a base is one example.  Another example I observed recently was a child reaching down to grab a shovel that another child was using - and the child who possessed the shovel first said, “That’s hot, don’t touch!  It’s my fire stick.”  Enough said - the other child just looked for a different shovel.


When I sit back and just watch - and I don’t step into conflicts right away - I see much more hard work being done.  To be totally honest, kids are going to get sand put on their heads and toys grabbed away from them.  There is injustice on the playground.  Letting children take on that system of justice is interesting to me.  Often what I (and perhaps most adults) think is a conflict is not a “real” one.  The adult solution of saying sorry, trying again, using words - these are fully grown-up ideas that stem from the way we perceive justice in our culture.  There is a time and a place for those things, of course, and having those strategies are important.


I am not judge and jury for children’s conflicts.  It takes an immense amount of time and patience to work through each individual conflict, scaffolding the mediation and problem solving process so that children might be able to find their own success in the process later.  But that success comes, and I love watching it late in the school year.  Certain strategies that children can apply to different situations (“can I have that when you’re done?”) are peppered through children’s work and play.  A child says “stop” and their playmate stops.  It doesn’t feel scripted anymore.  There is still the trial and error of exploring power and justice through play, though, as children talk and act their way through conflicts.


I sat down to write all of this because I am a Game of Thrones fan, and I as I watched the other night, I thought about what it is like to define justice in real time.  There are people in nearby and far away places who have some of the same standards of conduct, some quite different.  This is our planet too, of course, but the microcosm of preschool seems to reflect the early world:  society, figuring out its rules.  A group of people who are very interested in rules being followed, but don’t really follow the rules themselves.  Self-identified policing.  Power struggles.  A whole lot of self-interest.


The guards, the fighting of good and bad, the bases, the forts, the battles: this play reflects the work humans did quite a long time ago while trying to figure out how the world works.  Children are doing the same, everyday, through play.  There is the influence of media and story, where conflict is what engages us as the reader or the watcher of content.  Children use trial and error to make sense of how and why things are the way they are.  


What children explore and try through play changes with culture and generations.  Four years ago, teaching in rural Oregon, I observed children playing “hunting” - calling a friend to ask if they want to go hunting, pretending to pick that person up in the car, then going to the woods to find elk.  The boy from the beginning of this post, O, made his way into that secret base, ruffled around for a few seconds, then popped out and ran, with his hand in the air, screaming “I have your DATA!!”  These are children who are geographically close to each other, with very different agendas for exploration.  The elements we see so often - good, bad, conflict - are manifested in different ways for different children.


What is the educator’s role in all of this?  There are few better things to do than to watch and try to make your presence unimportant to children.  I like it when kids can really, truly play and work things out without censoring themselves. Kids need time and space and privacy, and if we jump in with advice every time there is a conflict, that is the solution they will expect.


Some play fighting was happening the other day that I let go on for longer than my colleagues would have:  they were grabbing and using a bit of force with each other, but smiling ear to ear the whole time, laughing, and taking breaks.  The only way to figure out how it feels to push is to push.  We cannot candy coat that and substitute a different situation.  Vejoya Viren shares:

Much has been said about using ‘teaching moments’ that arise from conflict between children. In contrast, far less has been said about letting conflicts become ‘learning moments’ for children. As a teacher I observed that play continued successfully when there was a certain mutuality of purpose between/amongst participants. This mutuality of purpose refers to the notion of intersubjectivity or shared understanding between participants...I believe that children achieve intersubjectivity through negotiation of personal understanding of each other. Much of the understanding is arrived at through conflict during play.
— Where Do the Children Play, pp. 98-99

I am not suggesting that we set children up for failure and injury on a lawless playground.  The drama of Westeros reminded me to watch and really try to assess what is happening before I jump to conclusions.  Children are doing hard work in those ‘learning moments’.

O got his “data”, and was deeply engaged in his exploration on the playground that day.  All of the children gained an experience in spontaneous, off-the-cuff play - and I’m sure it is not the last time.  We can all get bossy, but maybe the lesson is to be more aware of how much space and freedom we are giving children for this type of play: there are many things that are best explored without the nagging of a grown up.  Children can create their own, more relevant solutions, using the elements of the play itself.