As adults, we often bring our “agenda” to the table when we work with children: we know what is right and wrong, fair and unfair; the children have problems, we have solutions.
I prefer to take the stance that it’s more important for children to have ownership over their experience rather than have teachers depositing “wisdom” that the children follow. The more I let go of my opinions around right/wrong, the more children can attune to their inner wisdom.
With shifting group dynamics and children getting older, we find that the group as a whole is on a new part of the social/cognitive continuum. Therefore, we need to offer increasing independence as well as flexibility in the rules around social play. As they age, they assert more intentionality when choosing playmates and activities, which leads to more exclusion. This can leave other children feeling left out or excluded if they are not allowed to join into the play.
A few months ago, the children made a rule that it’s never okay to exclude, and that we always need to include the person who wants to join the play. They seemed to make this decision based on their desire to be included themselves.
Since then, we’ve gotten more lax on the enforcement of this rule. Sometimes the kids focus on projects that span thirty minutes or more, and they don’t want interruptions and conflicting agendas brought in by outside parties. If they work on a block tower for fifteen minutes, planning and coordinating and problem solving, I cannot in good conscience force them to include an outsider, who missed the whole planning phase.
Given the evolving social dynamics at play, we cannot arbitrarily enforce the existing rule, which now seems limiting and obsolete.
So today, we revisited our inclusion rule with a role play using stuffed animals, who had the option to include or exclude friends in their play.
As the children watched the make believe scenario unfold, they seemed conflicted. Our ensuing discussion revealed that they saw the value of both options – having the choice to exclude, or being forced to include outsiders. It soon became clear that we had to think of a new option outside of this black and white, either/or thinking.
I suggested that perhaps there is no rule, and that the teachers can help facilitate these scenarios on a case by case basis. They were very much on board with this. Some (but not all) kids offered valuable insight:
- One of the oldest children suggested that the children try to work it out and only get a teacher if they needed help, which we as a group decided was a great strategy.
- Another student brought up a situation that she felt excluded and we were able to apply our new system to that.
- A young four year old expressed that she didn’t want to be excluded and that’s why she wanted to include others.
- Our young three year old said “one day I felt like I was including [my sister] but apparently I played with her so I included her” (which wasn’t super constructive but highly relevant!).
- One of the twos said she loves playing with people at home and at school.
- An older student said it feels frustrating when people ask to play over and over again so we talked about how a teacher could help the children resolve this and make sure everyone feels heard.
So, we will try something new – a no-rules, case-by-case solution to the social dilemma of exclusivity. This approach feels more respectful to all parties. It will allow children who feel “excluded” to work through the accompanying feelings and explore other options (by choosing other playmates or things to do). It will help the children who want to exclude to feel less threatened as they express and perhaps resolve their concerns about why they don’t want to include in that particular game.
More important than “fairness” is that children actively participate in their small community. We need rules to keep children safe (emotionally and physically) but we also want to model flexibility. We are teaching them to think, unconstrained by our agendas and our manufactured opinions about “right” and “wrong”. We are choosing to step back and watch the children’s awarenesses around inclusion/exclusion take root and see what arises. This feels like the best, more organic, learning rich solution available. For now.