Playground Politics and the Power of Inclusion

Girls playing "This Little Pig".
Girls playing “This Little Pig”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is often stated that “play is the work of preschoolers.” Through play, preschoolers work out their nascent understandings of social conventions– a monumentally difficult task. “Convoluted” is the name of the game when it comes to the rules of engagement we expect members of society to play by. This is in part because many times the rules change from group to group, over and across time. Indeed, conversational language isn’t the only aspect of human behavior that follows the principle of generativity (a principle I discuss in a post titled “Labels on the Brain”). Just as words shift from nonsense to noun to verb (think “Xerox” and “Google”) or from negative to positive (think “wicked”), so too do our social rules of engagement. Unfortunately though, shifts in vernacular happen relatively seamlessly whereas shifts in social expectations can easily cause painful, disheartening, sometimes violent upheaval, even when the change has good intent. Just think for a moment about:

We don’t often speak of preschool play and serious social problems in the same breath, but we should. We should because the rules of engagement that create both lasting intimate relationships AND that create blights on society like racism and sexism are established very early in life. Without knowing the words (popular, outcast) nor the lasting emotional implications of them, social hierarchies form in preschools, parks, playgrounds and playgroups. The innocence of children comes from lack of awareness, not from lack of negativity.

When I discuss such things with my college students, they usually assume I exaggerate. They say: “Preschoolers can’t reject, discriminate, or engage in power-plays! How could they?” My students vividly remember the cycle of invitation and rejection and the power of popularity in high school, but they find it troubling to consider the possibility that preschoolers might do the same. After all, preschoolers can’t even really take the perspective of others, they don’t know how to read, they don’t know what it means to be popular, so how can they do those things?! Those are adult problems, right?

Then my students observe it happening (they spend 22 hours per semester in a school setting; placement options span preschool through middle school).

They are floored.

The social behaviors that create the status positions of “Popularity” and “Rejection” are easy to spot. When interviewing children in a sociometric manner (who do you most/least want to sit by, play with, work with), college students are stunned that even the preschoolers’ responses are nearly unanimous. Not only that, but their responses do not just reflect who they typically play with themselves. Their responses reflect the social hierarchy in the classroom. Everyone wants to be with the popular ones, whether they actually are friends or not. No one wants to be with the rejected children.

Parents, caregivers and teachers know this happens (we’ve all heard the threats “you can’t come to my birthday party” and “no boys allowed” and “only those wearing red shirts can sit here”). Common wisdom is that children need to learn how to work things out on their own and that such threats are just part of childhood. Adults should back off, and let children learn on their own to negotiate the social landmines that inevitably rise up. This “wisdom” holds a kernel of truth: children do create rules of engagement all by themselves. They can and do solve problems when left to their own devices. They need to be left on their own to do this, because too much reliance on others can create motivational handicaps later in life. That said, when adults are completely “hands-off” in these moments when playground politics create winners and losers, in-groups and out-groups, the process can backfire. The process backfires because the rules of engagement become habits, and a defining characteristic of “habit” is that the behavior is automatic – it’s done without thinking. The words and actions flow without reflection. When children aren’t asked to stop and think about what it is like to be the rejected one, they don’t. They just don’t think about the negative consequences of their actions. Stepping back and reflecting can cause one to pause though. Over time, those doing the rejection get reinforced for their social prowess – they become Popular with a capital “P,” – and as they age, many will actively work at maintaining their social power even if doing so requires them to be “mean”. Those being rejected, over time, will suffer. Some will show learned helplessness, others will become aggressive and fight back against the system. The play of preschoolers, when viewed in this light, is anything but innocent.

About 20 years ago (1992), a lovely book was published addressing just this issue. The title of the book is “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.” The book’s author, Vivian Gussin Paley, presents a captivating narrative detailing how she came to institute this rule in her kindergarten classroom and the fallout from doing so. Her interviews with children in all grade levels of the school reflect just what I discuss above: Children create social hierarchies and get stuck in a rut with them. Popular children control the play, rejected children watch from afar and feel very sad about their exclusion. It takes adult intervention to shake them out of it, and that is just what Paley’s rule did. It worked. The children’s habits changed and all benefitted. It didn’t happen seamlessly, the children and the adults struggled, but in the end, all saw the benefits of changing their words. Mandated inclusion actually made everyone happier – both popular and rejected children alike.

The moral of the story is clear: we owe it to children to help them learn to play nice. When they do, they create patterns of inclusion and respect, not rejection and distrust. But how do we do that? My college students and I have seen many examples of ways in which teachers attempt to help children play nice. For example, many teachers tell children that everyone in the classroom is their friend, and will then go on to say over and over again “You shouldn’t treat your friends that way,” or “that’s not how friends act.” Yet we’ve seen these same teachers not bat an eye when children throw around “birthday party un-invites” and when the popular children exclude the rejected children from their “Reindeer Games.”

Simply telling children to consider everyone as their friend isn’t the same thing as saying “you can’t say you can’t play.” In fact, I’ve come to feel quite strongly that telling children “everyone is their friend” is just as dangerous as standing back on the playground when power-plays are in motion. Doing so doesn’t help children learn what being a friend means. Let’s face it: we adults aren’t friends with everyone we share space with. Why would we assume something different of our children? In the adult world, we know that “breathing the same air” isn’t an effective way to eliminate discrimination. Why would we expect something different from children, who are learning the rules of engagement by observing us?

Children need to learn acceptable language, and words need to be meaningfully grounded in context. When the context is such that children are engaged in a negative interaction, but they are told that they are friends, what are they really learning? They are learning that friends don’t share and that friends do push. More than that, they are learning that friends can make them happy OR unhappy, that friends can be helpful OR hurtful. The message that everyone is your friend really confuses matters. Not everyone acts friendly. A student of mine reported a situation in a preschool classroom, where during “class meeting time” the teacher told the class that when you feel like you want to push someone, you should give them a hug instead, because that’s what friends do. When I heard this, I cringed. That recommendation does not help children regulate emotion. It does not help children learn to respect each other. In fact, it undermines children’s nascent understanding of how emotions and behaviors connect. Saying to hug when you are angry is just plain confusing. Why not instead tell children something to the effect of: “When you feel like pushing someone, take a deep breath then go find the teacher”? That teaches preschoolers to attend to their emotions, control them, then problem solve.

So why is the ““you can’t say you can’t play” rule better? It is better because it more closely reflects what we do know about how to effectively mitigate discriminatory attitudes. In the adult world, we know that when folks are brought together and are asked to work together to achieve a common, mutually agreeable goal, they begin to see each other in a new light – doing so affords the opportunity to shift from out-group bias to in-group understanding. Paley’s rule doesn’t gloss over the fact that children have real preferences amongst their classmates. Rather, the rule emphasizes the fact that we can all learn to get along, even with folks we might not think we “like.” Doing so allows us to learn about what we have in common with others. And that is the most important lesson I can think of, when I think of what preschool aged children should be learning.

Back to my earlier statement, that we don’t often speak of preschool play and serious social problems in the same breath, but we should. As agents who hold the keys to the future in terms of socializing the next generation to behave humanely, we parents, teachers, and caregivers owe it to children to ensure that their work is meaningfully productive, inasmuch as it is playful.



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