After over 25 years of working in Early Childhood classrooms as a teacher, this year is my first year in an administrative position. I am eternally grateful for what O-5 year old children have taught me about, being a friend, building community, creating inclusive spaces, and how to be a leader. In fact, when I think about what I learned the previous year, there were so many incredible lessons I learned through children’s play. Please know that when I use the word, “play” I mean the most important work of young children. I wanted to share this journey or “Masa” that our Pre-K children took last year, with a game that I ended up calling, “The Battle”.
As a teacher, I am most importantly an observer, listener, and facilitator. I feel like a fly on the wall that echoes back what I hear. I get to bring attention to the wonders around me and the amazing agency and resilience of children. Teachers spend time observing and come up with questions about what we see. This is essential to planning and can develop more ideas, possibilities, strategies, and even more questions.
I have noticed a common theme in our outdoor play that is not uncommon in early childhood. In fact, every year there is the game of good vs. bad or one group battling another group. Our knee jerk reaction when we see kids battling is to stop it. But what do children want to learn and achieve by playing these games? It is highly more complex than just a battle.
First, the idea of kids running around with large sticks flaying near each other is scary. And we always want to discourage children from hitting each other. We had spent a lot of time building agreements around how to use materials in safe ways. How to recognize when someone is feeling unsafe. How to tell when you yourself feel unsafe. How to express to others when you feel unsafe. And setting appropriate boundaries with others around play. These are the building blocks of what we do and return to throughout the year.
In my questioning I thought, What would happen if I provided a material that allowed a safe battle to happen? I have observed children playing tag-like games. Some children have less control of their bodies in this type of play and tagging becomes crashing or pushing. And with social distancing we have been moving away from contact play. So how do we help children create games that are inclusive and help everyone to feel safe? I wondered what would happen if we developed a game using pool noodles?
I brought in 4 pool noodles and cut them into thirds. This allowed for 3 of each color. I started with a very basic safety agreement with the children and the use of the pool noodles. They could battle each other with the noodles. But we had to build an initial agreement with how we could touch each other with them. They suggested that it had to be a light hit and it could not be hit by the head or face. And with that, the game began.
Everyone joined in and the noodles were flying. Whenever someone saw a problem with the game or had a new idea they would like to add to the game, we would pause the game. I would call for a “team meeting”. All the children would gather to each other's ideas, solutions, and agreements being proposed. When children take ownership of the play, they see themselves as responsible in making sure that the community's agreements are followed.
The children realized right away that there were different colors. After seeing this, they decided to split into groups based on the color of the noodle. There was excitement, laughing and running. And there were a few hits to the head and face. And a few hits that were too hard. But no one was really hurt. Every child stopped, checked on the person in a caring way. They were quickly forgiven and the game continued. The wild spree continued on for a few more minutes. The children started to observe how each other were playing. Soon one would come to the pile of noodles and say, “Can I choose a new color?” And I would ask, “Should we build an agreement around that idea?” With each change to the game we made sure that everyone understood and agreed to the change.
The wonderful thing about only having 3 of each color is that it pushed them to team together with a variety of children. It allowed them to observe the play of others, and make a choice of how they wanted to play and who they felt represented that play. It was also an opportunity to show friendship by choosing the same color as another.
Shortly after the game started, a team of one color gathered together to have a meeting. Soon other teams saw this happening and called out, “Team Meeting!” The children would meet in their groups via the color of their noodles. I could overhear plans and strategies being made. Each member listened to the one that called the team meeting. I wondered if the groups would have the same leader each time? But this game, designed by children and led by children, offered many opportunities. I saw a different child from each group call for a team meeting. Children are seekers of justice and fairness. No matter the level of social or developmental skills, each child would get an opportunity to lead the team meeting. They would gather, and that child would share their plan. What this game was offering was an opportunity for everyone to work collaboratively or within a small group. It was allowing each child to explore their own unique power.
As the game progressed, I noticed a couple of children losing their enthusiasm for attacking another group with a pool noodle. Each child has a different approach to play. I wondered how children who prefer games without contact would continue this game? I have ribbons of fabric that are tied together like rainbows that you can dance with. Laya suggested that she could be a rainbow in the game. I asked her what rainbows do. She said they help people. I asked, whose team are they on? She said they are on everyone's team and that they do not battle. She also suggested that they could also make their hair rainbows. We offered this idea to the group. They loved the idea and found a way for rainbows to help. They said, if anyone dies in the battle, the rainbows can bring them back to life. This added a new layer to the game and after a short time, Sam was part of the rainbow team. Everyone found a place to feel powerful in the game. It did not matter if you were the fastest runner or if you liked or disliked being tagged with a noodle. Everyone showed incredible flexibility and intention.
We made agreements that supported ways to step out of the game or play it to the individual's comfort level. We talked about listening to each other and watching body language. I could hear children telling each other, “please do that more gently.” Some children love to be involved but did not know how to communicate discomfort when they did not feel safe about the game. This brought up conversations about consent and gave a voice to expressing our personal boundaries.
After time, the game became more fluid. At one time, Theo and Sam decided to be guards over the millipedes that they had discovered. Connor and Fritz turned their noodles into spy glasses for pirates on the play structure. And Finn and Jack came up with new representations of what the different color teams had in different skills. All of a sudden we had different powers coming to all of the children that were full of creativity and imagination. Children knew they could leave the game and return to it and that their community would welcome them back.
One of my favorite changes to the game was very symbolic. The rainbow team discovered that if they helped someone come back to life that they would lose their powers and die also. I said to the group, “What do we do if a rainbow dies?” Without missing a beat, they gathered together all of their powers. Every color noodle pointing down at the fallen rainbow. Some of them made powerful sounds to go with their action. Slowly the rainbow came back to life. A perfect example of how there is strength in numbers, especially when we stand up for goodness. After this, Jack made it his responsibility to protect the rainbows in case they needed help again.
So, what did I learn from this game? There are so many layers to children’s play. Children need to be able to play in powerful ways. They are becoming skilled learners and leaders. This world needs them to keep communities feeling safe and included. Learning to see each other's unique gifts is the greatest gift of all. As a community, we all find our place to offer care to one another. Lastly, when we see children entangled in a battle of good vs.bad, it is so much more than a battle.
By Kim Krikorian
Assistant Director of Early Childhood Education