Can I Play with You?

Sometimes, when I think about all the conflicts in the world, I like to think about what I would do if the people involved were all young children in my classroom. I know that conflict is an inescapable part of life, but I wonder what would happen if well all stayed in touch with that child-like sense of play.

Let me tell you a story: About halfway through the school year, we got a new child. He was significantly younger than most of the other children in our class, and he had some initial challenges connecting with his peers. For the first few months he was in our room, he would watch children building with blocks, then he would storm in and knock down what they had just built. Our room would erupt with screams and tears, and this child would run away.

When he did this same thing almost every day for weeks, sometimes my temptation was to forbid this child from going to block center when other children were playing there. It felt easier. I would no longer be faced with this occasional chaos. But, my children helped me to see that there was a greater conflict here. One that involved considerable more work and patience.

I could tell that this child, like ever child I’ve ever met, wanted to play with his peers. Obviously destroying their buildings was not the way to do it. But, I’m not sure he could think of another way. When I saw this child begin to approach the block center, I would prep him, “I see you want to play with these children. Let’s go ask them, ‘can I play with you?'” He would follow my instructions, and I remained close to help him integrate into their play.

It was hard work. For all of us. This little boy had to use all the impulse control he could muster, and sometimes he remembered to control himself a little too late. My co-teacher and I had to constantly supervise this child. There were days when I felt like my sole responsibility was to follow him around, helping him resolve conflict after conflict. And the other children had to give him the space to practice being a friend. They had to say, “yes you can play.” They had to accept the fact that sometimes he would still knock down their blocks.

But here’s the amazing thing: they let him play. When he knocked down their blocks, they would cry, then they would ask him to help build it up again. And they would keep playing. Together.

A few weeks ago, I watched as one of my girls turned to this boy and asked, “Do you want to build a hotel.” They went to block center and started building. They played all morning. That afternoon, I rubbed her back as she settled down for nap. This same little boy, who months earlier would knock down everything she built, sat down on my lap and started rubbing her back. He sweetly whispered to me, “I love her. She’s my friend.”

This is not the only time I’ve seen this friendship transformation in the classroom. Children seem to have an innate sense of forgiveness for the sake of friendship. Even the ones that tend to use the most challenging behaviors always find at least one person to play with them.

Why can’t we, as adults, hold onto this same capacity for friendship? Maybe we forget how to ask to play. Maybe we are too committed to playing in a specific way with specific people, and cannot make space for another peer. I sometimes catch myself completely avoiding those whom I come in contact with– akin to forbidding them to go to block center. It takes time and energy to play with someone who has really wronged you. But, in the end, what’s more powerful than being able to say, “I love her. She’s my friend”?

-“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It’s an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and right now.” -Mr. Rogers

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