Helping Children PlayAug 01, 2023
A common playground report from a child is that so and so won’t let them play. As a teacher this complaint can produce quite a conundrum. Can one child be told to let another child play? If one child is told to let the other child play, will they play nicely? Will there be resentment? Will the reporter benefit beyond this single interaction? If I don’t tell the child to let the other child play, am I enabling exclusion? What do I tell the reporter? Do I comfort them or would that be coddling? And if this one report sparks all of these conflicting thoughts, which it is apt to do, a teacher can hardly be blamed for any number of feelings being triggered. Irritation, overwhelm, distress, or even anger are understandable emotional responses.
Thankfully, there is a solution. Children can be taught to join play successfully. No more rejection. No more hurt feelings. No more “mean” or “bad” kids. Initially, solving the issue may take some teacher involvement, but it is well worth it.
The next time this matter is brought to your attention, go with the child to investigate what is happening. Ask the rejector what they are playing and suggest a role for the reporter. For example, if they are playing house, propose that the newcomer be the mom. It may be as simple as this, or some negotiation may need to take place. If it is more complicated, say both children want to be the mom, the children will either need to negotiate or play separately. What you will most likely discover is that the rejector didn’t have it out for the child who wanted to play. More likely, the child who wanted to play needed more social tools.
If the same matter is brought up subsequently, ask the child, “What are they playing?” If the child doesn’t know, they need to go find out and may find resolution on their own. If the child does know, you might discover that the children just don’t want to play the same thing. No one is being exclusive.
When children ask their peers yes or no questions such as, “Can I play?” they open themselves up to rejection. The child who responds, “no”, is not being malicious. It is an easy response that comes out of a need to preserve the current play scenario. When children approach their peers with suggestions, such as, “I’ll be the babysitter” in the house example, they have done the leg work for those already playing and the play scenario adjusts naturally without much interruption.
Think about it in adult terms. What feels better to you: a colleague asking, “Can I help” or saying, “I’ll file those papers.” Sure, you might answer yes to the first question, but then you would have to figure out what to delegate and how. When they offer a suggestion instead, you can be grateful for the assistance without spending mental power on finding work for them.
The next time a child tells you that they are not being allowed to play, you can view it as an opportunity for social skill building. You can guide students in solving their own problems on the playground and in their lives.