(Originally Published in HFP Newsletter — June 2009)
By Susan Eisman
Preschool is the ideal setting to learn how to engage in satisfying play with friends. Typically three-year- olds need lots of coaching and support to participate in mutually gratifying play. They are still learning to share leadership of play scripts and to negotiate preferences of roles and execution. More experienced four- and five year- olds are savvy to the art of play; they “take up an idea, pass it around, and give everyone a chance to influence the outcome.” (Gussin Paley). And even the most skilled players grapple with determining who can play and in what specific ways they can participate.
A couple of parents recently shared their concern about exclusion in the classroom. I brought the issue to circle time, inviting children to help me think about inclusion (you can play) and exclusion (you can’t play). Very simply, we noted that when a child is included she feels good (a part of the group); and when she is excluded, she feels bad (left out). Obviously the dynamics of play are far more complex than that. Children experience a range of feelings related to the play from frustration, to celebration, to dis-ease, to great satisfaction. And just when a pair or small group is engaged in a mutually agreed upon and satisfying plan, something changes: Another child sees how much fun they are having and wants to join the play.
Basic Steps to Joining Play
( Adults may assist with any of these steps along the way.)
1. I want to join. (Child knows and expresses that he wants to get involved).
2. What are you playing? (Child asks or has observed what has taken place so far).
3. Newly joining child names a role for himself. (This role may be in harmony with the play that’s been happening up until now, or it may feel contrary to the play that’s been happening).
4. Group accepts or rejects the newly proposed role. If they reject it because it feels in conflict to their existing play, they need to assist the newcomer with a choice of appropriate roles.
Following the circle time discussion of inclusion/exclusion, I paid special attention to children’s efforts to join play, noting their peers’ responses in the play yard.
Here’s what I observed:
Anika approaches Rayley at the outdoor water table. “Can I play?”
Rayley, “Sure! This is for everybody.” Anika fills a pitcher with water and pours it into a cup.
Gabriel’s digging in the wet sand. Finn excitedly approaches and asks, “Can I join you?” Gabriel, “Sure.” Finn squats down beside Gabriel, shoveling the moist sand.
Finn observes Holland and Lili Ana building with cardboard blocks. They’re building a platform to stand on and to reach the loft. Without saying anything, Finn grabs more cardboard blocks from the shelf and stacks them on the existing platform. Finn knows what is happening and knows how to join the play. Holland, Lili and Finn continue building together, balancing on the blocks, reaching the loft branches. They’re delighted with their joint accomplishment.
Holland and Rayley balance a wood plank on the edge of the picnic table. They take turns balancing across it. Interested, Anika stands behind them on the plank. Anika gives herself permission to join in, “Yeah! Everybody can try.” Anika scales the plank. Holland, Rayley and Anika take turns walking the plank.
A few minutes later Gabriel approaches Rayley.
Gabriel: “Now, how do you do this game?”
Rayley: “Just walk.”
Gabriel walks down the plank.
The growing group continues to take turns balancing across the plank.
A few minutes later Adriano is discouraged and approaches me for help.
Adriano: “They’re making something that I can’t go on.” Teacher Susan: “Did someone tell you that you can’t play?” Adriano: “Holland.” Susan: “Let’s talk with Holland.”
Together, Adriano and I talk with Holland to figure out how Adriano can join the game in a way that works for each of the players.