The outdoor area for the Nursery at my school is much bigger than my original 2 year old program. My favourite thing about it is that part of it is on relatively substantial hill that the children can go up, and look down on the play area, the rest of the school and neighbourhood. As I am getting to know all the children in the nursery, a group of them have repeatedly wanted me to go up with them on one part of the hill. There’s a walled off ledge here, and a path under and along side it.
Up on this part of the hill we’ve spent time just sitting and watching the action below, making pretend sneezes to laugh about, playing with ropes I tied to tall tree branches and more. It’s a great place to get away from the commotion and fluorescent lights inside. I do my best to not hog the spotlight of the play but since I am new to the nursery, and I want to build good relationships with the kids I am leaning more into my funny, entertaining new-adult-in-the-room mode. As the relationships get in place I will increasingly pull back from the center of the action and let them get on with their play more and more.
Yesterday one boy suddenly decided to start to throw everything he could off find of this area and off the ledge. A small dug up dead bush, plastic cups and plates, two logs almost as big as him and two big plastic crates. It was getting on the path below and it looked messy. He was having a really good time! I wish I was able to take a picture of all this so you could see what I am talking about.
This is notable to me because I distinctly remember when I would’ve stopped this sort of play straight away. I would have thought it looked destructive, messy and if allowed to continue, might lead to Lord of the Flies situation. “Children need to learn to obey us and to not make needless messes.” I don’t say this only to pat myself on the back for my supposed enlightenment but more to be honest about the path I’ve been on working in early learning.
Learning to trust children more and tolerate more mess, I observed as I let him continue with the chucking everything in site off the ledge (there were no children below and if any were coming I would’ve asked him to wait until they passed). Since I do not yet know this boy, and our setting is in a working-class, immigrant area where many of the children aren’t given many opportunities for messy, risky, big body play my assumptions about his play started off honestly pretty paternalistic. He hasn’t had opportunities to explore the trajectory schema (good on me for letting him do so). Not that I think I was wrong at all here, but it puts his supposed setbacks in the foreground of the situation. After a few minutes I think I looked at it more positively. This boy is developing full body strength as he actively explores weight, gravity, trajectory. He is feeling powerful, something every human needs, using his body to send this stuff through the air, and most of all he is really enjoying throwing sh*t off the ledge! Allowed power and freedom to play how he liked, this boy was engaged in most every single Characteristic of Effective Learning and his Laevers Scales were strong fives.
Do you remember how much fun it was to throw things as a child?
Many of our assumptions about, and rules and expectations for children needlessly interfere with children’s hardwired plans for their healthy growth and development. I won’t delude myself into thinking anybody reading this isn’t already part of the choir but what would be gained from stopping this boy from enjoying this activity? I think the only real answers are concerns over safety (besides getting to know the kids I was up there to make sure nobody would get hit), “respect for the toys” (nothing was broken), but if we are really being honest, it is about breaking the child’s will.
I don’t think many would be happy to look at this way but again, I remember how I used to look at children. I remember what I felt and thought when I first started working with kids in the US without any understanding of early childhood development. I simply did not understand the biological and psychological reasons behind much of their behaviour. I started working in a preschool because I “liked kids,” but I now know I was completely ignorant about them. I saw a large part of my job as providing consistent limits, expectations and consequences so they would eventually, somehow follow adult expectations of behaviour. This was how they would be socialised into well-functioning adults.
I saw children through what I call the all-pervasive “cute, empty-headed beasts” lens of childhood. If we don’t know about children’s development so much of their behaviour will then be inscrutable and maddening. It is something to be managed, corralled, punished, praised, bribed and manipulated until they eventually live up to adult expectations of behaviour. If I remember correctly, I would have worried “how else will children know how to behave?” If this boy thinks it’s okay to throw the toys off this ledge now, how is he going to learn to delay his gratification enough to get through the hardships of adult life that are to come later?
The answer to this very legitimate concern is that children in stable loving environments full of secure relationships with adults and other children will naturally grow into stable, loving adults who are secure in themselves. It is not complicated but it does require faith, trust and respect for children in a culture that thinks these are outlandish ideas. Babies and young children learn how to be decent adults by the example of being treated decently by adults. As Magda Gerber put it, “Personality characteristics such as generosity, empathy, caring and sharing cannot be taught, they can only be modeled.”
I put sh*t in the title of this piece because I think much of the reality of children’s play can be a bit distasteful or controversial to our adult senses. Children’s play is not always respectful or part of polite, adult society. We can get trained on and read books about schemas and understand it all intellectually, but genuinely being okay with things getting thrown through the air is and the path getting messy is an entirely different ball game.
If our settings are supposed to be for children’s growth and development, I am going to let this boy and and any other child throw sh*t off the ledge and engage in other behaviours that might challenge some of our adult hang-ups around mess, risk, and safety. To be clear I am not saying I have the monoply on “best practice” here. I am not arguing anybody needs to go to work and to pretend they are okay with behaviours that they are not (it won’t be sincere and you will drive yourself nuts), nor is this saying children don’t need age appropriate expectations and limits, but I am advocating people engage in some serious yet gentle reflection and find their growing edge of comfort with these topics.
Who are our settings for? What is the worst that could happen if you let that child follow their urge to put the sand in the water table? Stand on a chair to make their block tower higher? Not come to your mandatory circle time and instead carry on with their play? Take the play dough outside? Roll a tire down the slide? And of course, what is the best that could happen if we let our children have more power and freedom in how they play?