Today, I observed as two four year old girls sat with each other smoking cigarettes and drinking beers on my playground as they talked about going over to each other's houses to play.
Okay, well, the "cigarettes" were woodchips and the "beers" were six inch two-by-four segment blocks--but the play was real. When I noticed how they were holding the woodchips snugly between their index and middle fingers, a weird "spidey sense" went off in my brain. When one of them said, "I need more beer", I almost jumped into action to confront them, as if they were misbehaving. Mid-stride, though, I stopped.
Weeks before, I had found myself in a similar situation. A child had fashioned a gun out of a strangely-shaped piece of mulch and was running back and forth on the playground, shooting at a friend, who was pretending to be the Hulk, shouting "pew! pew! pew!" as he ducked and weaved. I had been trained in every childcare program I had worked in up until this point that I should chime in, confiscate the "weapon" and say, "we don't use guns in school."
One day, after opening my own program, a colleague brought it up to me that a pretty valid response to "we don't use guns in school" would be, "well, that's why they're pretend!"
That's such a four-year-old thing to say, right? When adults ask loaded questions or make loaded statements, we don't typically expect such literal answers or responses. Sort of how asking a child "why did you do that?" when they do something you don't like is setting everybody up for failure (or more frustration). But nonetheless, it's true, and it's an incredibly valid point for a four year old to make when questioning authority--it's almost like they're saying, "Dude, chill, I'm four years old."
I always say that early childhood professionals have to be skilled detectives. When a child is upset or disruptive, we have to remind ourselves, "something else is going on here, and it's my job to figure it out." But sometimes, we get so caught up in that that we end up trying to step into the roles of psychologists or psychiatrists, and that's just not right.
I watched these girls smoking and drinking--engaging in a reenactment of what most people consider debilitating vices--and I thought, "oh my god; their parents are teaching them that smoking and drinking is okay and if they think that smoking and drinking is normal they're going to idolize it and look at this they already idolize it because they're pretending to do it because they think it's cool and it's going to continue until they're old enough to acquire it on their own and they're going to develop horrible addictions and and and..." and I just want to slap myself for being in that place, because I know that's just not the case.
Just the same, when I would see kids playing rough and tumble, weapon-heavy games I'd be thinking to myself, "oh my god they're developing unhealthy relationships with weaponry and violence and they're going to grow up to be violent people if I don't intervene and tell them about how serious weapons are and how horrible of a teacher everyone is going to think I am that my students think it's okay to play violent games in my classroom and and and..." chill. It's pretend.
First, we should look at what pretend play has to offer for children. The American Psychological Association supports a research-based theory that pretend play might be a tool that helps children realize that thoughts, not reality, guide people's actions, utterances and emotions.
Next, if you're concerned about the subject matter, we should look at how to tell if a child's role-play scenario is actually innocent play or possibly a red flag / call to attention. There are times where children do act out very specific, very detailed, and very unsettling scenarios of which we should take note and be mindful. Just like all pretend play, teachers should ask what the children are doing, what the story is, and where they got the story. If something is unsettling to you, simply plopping in the question "is this something that happened to you?" or "is this something you do at home?". I like to run scenarios through the twelve indicators of play.
The 12 Indicators of Play
The following indicators are adapted from two books on play published by Tina Bruce (1991, 1996):
Are the children...
Based on the list above, if what a child is doing meets these most of the criteria, it's simply play.
We know that children like to pretend to be in positions of power. Children emulate the people in their life who have control and power because they want to understand how those people think; what makes them tick, not because they want to emulate them or "follow in their footsteps". It's possible to argue that some children will choose to emulate if they find a measure of efficacy in the that power. Sadly, fear is an effective (albeit unhealthy) way to boost the efficacy of power.
When adults react negatively to hearing a bad word from a child, that word gains power. When adults react negatively to a child with a pretend "cigarette", "cigarettes" gain power. When adults react negatively toward pretend "guns", "guns" gain power. Eventually, in adolescence or adulthood, should that child ever be in a situation where they feel completely and utterly powerless, there will be that subconscious pull toward those "powerful" items. It can be argued then, that "zero tolerance policies" about this kind of play are actually counterproductive, just as "zero tolerance policies" toward bullying have proven to be counterproductive.
Additionally, if we stop play to step up on a soap box and lecture children about how smoking, drinking, and guns are bad, (assuming they respond at all to a lecture in the first place) not only are we giving these concepts an enticing illusion of power, we're setting that child up for a whole lot of confusion when they see their mother smoking, their grandparent drinking beer, or a family friend who enjoys hunting. You can severely damage a child's sense of safety, security, and their place in the world if you create an aura of opposition toward who their parents are or what their parents do. That's an unfair abuse of power.
This is why we show children what they can hit after they hit a friend. This is why we show children what they can rip when they rip someone's drawing. This is why we show children where they can play out these fantasies. We cannot shield a child from "negative influences" in other people's behavior. That's not our job at all. Our job is to be a positive influence, to exude an amount of power that is all at the same time, effective, just, kind, loving, unconditional, empathic, human, deep, talented, etc. When children have adults in their lives showing them what adulthood looks like, we can show them that it can look differently than the other influences in their life.
We know that children role play with subject matter that excites emotional responses. Heck, even reality television nannies know that children attach to what stimulates emotional responses from themselves and other humans. Children play drawing from subject matter and experiences that excite them, make them happy, curious, anxious, sad, angry, and afraid. I can think of multiple times as a child where I would role play about things that made me so afraid, I'd almost have panic attacks and have to think about puppies until the fear was pushed aside.
Speaking of puppies, have you ever watched puppies play with each other? It looks bad. It looks like a real dog fight sometimes. However, when puppies play, and they're biting and pawing at each other, they are biting softly. They are pawing more gently than they could be. When they bite a little too hard, their playmate yelps, and they make note of that boundary. Too rough. I am not going to imply that children are like dogs, but the nature of youth is extremely widespread amongst species. This is how children play, too. They play with no intent of harm. They will inevitably play too rough, and if the game is to continue, someone will have to adjust their exerted force. Therefore, there's not much that a caregiver has to do to box this play in.
There is very little need for teacher intervention in power play. When it comes to living out scenarios with alcohol or smoking, there is virtually no need for teacher intervention. We just observe, make a mental note of it in the event that patterns have to be assessed, and move on.
Eventually, there will be something way more interesting to try, some scenario way more fun to role play. Children role play to try on different personas, different lifestyles, different characteristics, different habits, different roles for so many different reasons, and very rarely are any of those reasons cause for concern.
The Questions: "How do children learn right from wrong when you let them freely explore their ideas constantly? How do they learn common sense rules?"
Well, today, I was working in the classroom with the lead teacher. She and I brought our school family inside after playing outside for what seemed like enough time to wear just about anybody out. Almost immediately, a little boy had a "what would happen if...?" moment. He stood up on a table and used that table to stand atop a half-wall. Balancing on it, he took the risk to jump off and (gasp!) survived. This immediately triggered other children to try the same thing.
Facilitating the opportunity to learn rather than instigating an unnecessary conflict, my lead teacher asked the children if maybe, possibly we had something soft we could put down where the kids were landing when they jumped. We all paused the action and piled pillows on the floor.
This led to a plethora of other "what would happen if...?" moments, including "what would happen if we held hands while we jumped?" Naturally, this led to a poorly timed tandem jump that ended in a bonked head (which made a horrid noise!), and a very upset little guy after the shock wore off and the eye test was passed (thank goodness!).
It would have been easy to say "okay, that's it, we're done with this!", right? Not in the long term, and not for the children who were still interested. For them, it would be confusing to navigate our thought process. "Why was this okay earlier but not now?" "Why does someone getting hurt mean nobody gets to try?"
That's right! Just because he got hurt doesn't mean we had the right to end the entire game for everyone. Interestingly, though, as his cries turned to whimpers and dissipated in his teachers arms, magically, so did all of the other kids' interest in this risky game.
After nobody was interested in this game anymore, a little girl walked up to me and said, "maybe we shouldn't jump off of the furniture anymore" and I told her that was a fabulous conclusion to come to.
The absolute worst thing we could have done was stop the risks from being taken, and then the second worst thing we could have done was end the opportunity to take risks the second someone was hurt.
Now we have a group of children who have made their own decision to avoid doing something despite knowing they have the freedom to do it. More importantly, they know WHY they are choosing to avoid it. So, so, so much easier than barking "we don't stand on tables" 20 times per day, every day of the week.
Now, is this game ever going to resurface? Probably. Novelty is amazing. Children crave it. Inevitably, there will be natural consequences every time the game resurfaces, until you've just got a group of children who can admit to themselves, "I don't want to do that because it's too unsafe for me."
There's a war against cell phones in early childhood classrooms, and, quite honestly, it's the most ridiculous aspect of the job for so, so many people. Different childcare centers have catch-all rules in which teachers are required to leave their cell phones in little personalized cubbies in the office, teachers must leave them in their cars, and the simple sight of a cell phone on the job can result in immediate termination.
My first case for cell phones is the case for trust. Administrators everywhere are mortified about how difficult it is to staff a childcare center with qualified, quality teachers. Even where I operate my center, the unemployment rate is so low that when I put out an ad for 20+ teachers, I got three responses, five days later. This is where an administrator can make one of two decisions: hire anybody who "likes to be with kids" or hold out for someone they wholeheartedly trust to work in their center. If an administrator can't trust their employee's discretion with a cell phone, they shouldn't be trusting the lives of other people's children to them. That is the lowest common denominator. Once the issue of trust can be solved, actual, adult policies can be put in place.
My second case for cell phones exists within the concept of a child-led, play-based program. Nobody has a perfect environment for natural learning, and a teacher with a cell phone can help facilitate an expansion on a child's interests with images or videos sourced from the internet.
For example, the other day, our playground was a swamp of water from the most recent rain. When this happens, the kids usually pick up the loose 8 foot PVC gutter, place it at an angle against the fence, and send water they scooped from the ground down it like a river. Tons of important science, awareness, and muscular learning is happening during this time, but beyond that, one of the children placed a wooden block in the gutter and it got stuck. Water flowed over it, so he placed another one on top of it. He was building a dam. I asked him, "Is that a dam you're building?", and he was confused. I pulled out my cell phone and quickly searched a video of beavers building a dam and this child and a few others gathered around to watch the beavers building a dam. This gave them an idea.
Suddenly, after seeing that, they were using clumps of wood chips to create dams, since the beavers use sticks. They used the wood blocks from before to set the dams and then removed them to check the wood chips' efficacy.
Right there, I was able to expand learning tenfold by providing an information dump that I didn't organically have in my environment. I was able to do this because I had my cell phone on hand.
I think a lot of the reason for not having cell phones in the environment is stemmed from good intentions. We do not want children to believe that we are dependent on our electronic devices. I get that. However, here in the real world, we do use our devices for a lot of things. I use mine most often to search for things I don't know about. That's something I think we should be modeling for children. Adults don't know everything, and access to the internet can help us learn new information. I think modeling the use of these devices as a secondary mode of personal education and problem solving serves to create a better understanding than their ban all together.
Children will be exposed to electronics no matter what. We have two options: model for them how they can be used positively, or let the only exposure they get to them be the people who have unhealthy addictions to them and the negative connotations thereof. If we are to prepare children for this world, a healthy understanding of technology is important, as technology in general is only going to become more complex and more inviting. Technology is going to become a key resource in nearly any profession.
Studies that explain "screen time" as being a negative thing are flawed. They often don't take into account the host of situations surrounding children who engage in excessive screen time. One can say that in these studies, the reason the studied child is acting out is more likely the fact that his parents ignore him so that he'll use the device, than it is that the screen time is causing the behaviors. Screen time studies only serve to link two aspects of a child's life together as if one causes the other. They essentially say, "Child A watches a lot of television. Child A is diagnosed with depression as an adult. Therefore, if you don't want your child to develop depression, limit screen time." That's like saying, "Travis drives a car. Travis gets cancer and dies. Therefore, if you don't want to get cancer and die, don't drive a car."
Here's what the NIH has to say about screen time:
Now, I'm pretty sure that screen time is actually a side-effect of these issues. Of course it's going to be hard to sleep at night if you're watching television. Of course you're going to watch a lot of television if you already have anxiety, attention problems, or depression. Of course you're more likely to watch television if you're not physically active. That's just common sense. It's just ridiculous, however, to try to say that screen time causes these things. I think that parents using screen time as a pacifier might cause these things. I think parents ignoring their children and putting them in their room with a movie so they won't be bothered might be causing these things.
I'm not saying that every child should have unlimited access to technology, but, I think the way we model it should always be in a positive light to ensure that the exposure the children get contributes positively to their understanding. We shouldn't ban technology, as long as we know how to use it correctly. We can allow the use of cell phones for educational expansion (and to be checked during breaks) without a slippery slope into suddenly becoming the center that has TV time. Pulling out my phone to take a photo or expand on a topic the children are interested in is not going to cause depression, anxiety, or obesity.
Obviously, if your licensing regulations have anything to say about cell phones, you do always need to follow them. However, most of the people I talk to who think cell phones aren't allowed through licensing were told that by a previous employer and never questioned it, yet the regulation doesn't exist. If you trust your staff, you trust their discretion. It's as simple as that. If they need assistance in knowing what is and is not acceptable, that's okay--give that to them. But creating a catch-all rule to imply that there's no trust sends all sorts of wild messages about the climate in your facility.
For my own purposes, if anyone has a copy of their licensing book with a clause on cell phone usage, please forward it to me, as I love learning about the different regulations in different areas.
When I started teaching preschool, I remember colleagues and supervisors telling me I had a gift for early childhood education. You would walk into my room and see kids quietly and neatly sitting at the tables coloring, a few kids peacefully playing in the dramatic play area, several children engaging in Montessori works at rugs, and soft ambient music (thank God for Brian Eno) playing as I stood off to the corner observing.
Every now and then if you walked in at an inopportune time, the serenity remained but a child would be almost silently sobbing at his or her "wall spot", a dedicated, laminated circle on the wall with their name on it--the place they were sent if they broke a rule or I needed the group to look at books without going near one another.
It was a tight ship. When I wanted to transition into the next activity, I'd say "class!" and they'd all respond "yes!" and I'd say "clean up!" and they'd say "okay!" and in seconds my classroom was spotless and well-organized. If I said "Line!", everyone would stop what they're doing and form a perfect, military-grade single-file line.
Then I took a brief break from early childhood altogether. I took up an office job. It didn't suit me at all, but, as many in this field can attest, it paid a whole lot better. But, at a certain point the extra pay just wasn't worth the long, eventless days. I needed more action. I needed more creativity.
I took a job at an early childhood center and was told that I needed to curb a whole lot of behavioral issues in the specific classroom. I honestly didn't really know if I could so easily be thrust back into that groove, especially with such a daunting task. I brought in a few of the Montessori materials I owned, and went to work.
I started my usual thing. I made the wall spots. I started implementing the chants and responses from Whole Brain Teaching. The classroom was turning around, and just as quickly as I was thrust into this new position, I was about to be thrust out of my entire understanding of who I was as a teacher.
It happened like this: I had just instructed the class to start cleaning up the room after the serene, quiet work time I described before, a little boy was working with the Cards and Counters. He had been enthralled by them since the day I had brought them in. I walked up to him and said in my cookie-cutter, preschool teacher voice, "Did you hear me? It's time to clean up!" and I'll be darned if this little boy didn't look me right in the eyes and say "no."
I was offended. I don't know why I was offended, but I was. I told this boy to go to his wall spot and he cried. I started to pick up his work for him when I looked down at the neatly, carefully, and purposefully placed counters, and a sudden wave of intense realization hit me like one million bricks. I had just punished this boy for wanting to learn. I had just sent a message to this boy that he was only allowed to learn when it was convenient for me. I wasn't being an effective teacher, I was being controlling.
I went home that night shaken. Just a week into this brand new job, where everyone was telling me I was a blessing and an amazing teacher, and I had just realized that all of those complements and rewards completely blinded me to how damaging I was to the children I was caring for. What was worse was all of the other teachers were coming to me for behavioral advice. So not only were people in love with my style of teaching, others wanted to adopt it. I had to stop.
I started researching developmentally appropriate practice--something I cling to to this day--and the fabulous works of Dr. Becky Bailey. I was easily distracted from this "road to recovery" by the simple notion that how I taught children was considered totally normal in the early childhood field, and I could easily just stop trying to make myself better and remain in my old ways, but I decided that this work meant more to me than my admitted love of being lazy now and then.
I started to realize that I did have some control issues--possibly passed down from past teachers--that gave me this adult idea of how things were supposed to go with children. Adult tells child what to do, child does. I had no concept of the importance of mutual respect. I seriously had never stopped to think that maybe the class would almost always use quieter voices if I just whispered all of the time. I thought back to every time in my career that kids were putting their dolls in time out and just being totally brutal to these poor dolls, and realized that what they were acting out was their childish perception of me--a scary, brutish, jerk.
It took months for me to get to this place where children had the freedom to think and act as they felt they needed to. It took me months to get rid of the regulated centers. Months to get rid of the trace and copy worksheets. Months to get rid of the Pinterest art activities. This all led to emails from my supervisors accusing me of slacking in the job. I started to communicate with parents and colleagues that parents don't need receipts for their child's learning. That little panda you made out of the letter 'P' didn't teach that child anything any more than the worksheets taught them how to write.
Other teachers started to attack me because I didn't have interesting art on the walls (e.g. I didn't have 22 identical Pinterest crafts hanging on the wall). I had to be strong enough to tell these teachers that I didn't believe that any craft that I had anything to do with was appropriate for an early learning art activity. I would let them do art for themselves.
I had to explain the concept of child-led hundreds of times. I had to explain that I still had boundaries in my classroom that were to be respected. I had to explain why I didn't use "time-outs" any longer. It took a lot of explaining from me, and after a while, the explaining started to get useless. My words were falling on deaf ears, despite the constant, often totally ignorant and mean, requests for my explanation. I had to take a lot of deep breaths and be compassionate, because I was that teacher months prior to this. The parents were always on board with me through my learning, but the teachers made the struggle unbearable.
I chose to leave that position. I applied to several other programs and was offered positions at each of them, but the directors all warned me that it would be an uphill battle with the other staff members to be able to use my own style of teaching in my own classroom.
That's when I started my own center. Child-led, play-based, teacher-facilitated, early learning. I find myself having to explain myself a lot less often. I find myself surrounded by a staff that is eager to work on the next big thing to ensure we're aligned with D.A.P. and other early learning guidelines.
Here's me not stressing about cleaning this mess up because I'm wearing a shirt that says "Let Kids Be Kids", which you can order (with or without my logo) here.
It always takes people a while to get on board with child-led/play-based. It can take up to a year sometimes. We get so judgmental of younger generations over their need for instant gratification that we forget that most of our problems as adults stem from that exact same need as well.
Some teachers just need to see the proof that it does lead to a less stressful environment. Some teachers just need some proof that a classroom that looks like a tornado went through it isn't such a bad thing after all. Some teachers just need proof that you can have a handle over the behavior in the classroom without time outs and behavior charts. You can't force that proof. You just have to let it show up organically with a teacher who is willing to try, just like I was willing to try years ago.
I ditched the compliant classroom because I should have known after my first high school psychology class that accepting authority on the basis of authority is a dangerous, dangerous thing.
I ditched the compliant classroom because I was so sick of worrying more about what my classroom looked like than I did about the development and education of the children.
I ditched the compliant classroom because I knew that proving that "learning happened" with paperwork and teacher-led projects was a blatant lie meant to keep parents pleased with their choice of childcare.
I chose the child-led, play-based classroom because when I let them play, the proof that learning happened is right in front of me, as it's happening.
Our posts are created by several early childhood professionals. Most stories will include the author's name and a link to their "About Me" or the program they own or represent.