The mean guys

On my desk at work I have six toy knights with swords and armor that I confiscated from the newly donated playroom castle, after several parents expressed concerns about their children playing with them.

Personally I am drawn to them.  They are just the right size and feel for one’s hands and are easily manuevered into interesting stances.  I find myself setting them up and positioning them as I ponder something or talk on the phone.

I have a very special sweet friend, Aedan (not quite three-years-old) who frequently stops by my desk.  One day he spied these knights and immediately named them the “ mean guys”.  Now whenever he visits, I can definitely count on his spirited request. “Can we play with the mean guys?” For Aedan, one of these particular knights is always the meanest guy.  We engage in a skirmish or two before he needs to move along.

I wasn’t sure how his dad felt about this mean guy play at first but between my friend and me, I know we share a certain excitement as we set up the “mean guys”.   Perhaps because I am actually participating in this adventure with Aedan assures him that we both understand we are only pretending.

I know this short play episode means a lot to Aedan as his dad says he speaks about it at home.  So I feel somewhat responsible for his newly developed outlet and have spent some time considering why this type of play is so appealing to all young children.

Whether it’s Super Heroes, Star Wars, dinosaurs or knights with swords, young children are drawn to the sense of power and adventure they emote.  Our children attempt to answer the questions in their world that swirl about them and make sense out of things they hear and see.  Dramatic play is the prime vehicle for exploring these feelings, both good and bad.

Children respond to and figure out these ideas, however, not through passive or reflective means but actively, instead, through their pretend physical play.

This type of play offers children the sense of control and power they are seeking as they grow. It encourages conversation, sharing and resolving conflict as they learn to be more in charge of  even their wildest impulses, carrying over to ordinary day-to-day interactions. 

As parents we have strong feelings against aggression and want to instill these beliefs and practices in our children from an early age. But children interpret and integrate our values more readily through repetitive hands-on play.   

Children are in wonder about  the things they don’t understand, the fears they have, the insecurities they feel.  It is working through these strong feelings, facing their fears, trying out different roles and having the opportunity to  “defeat”  their monsters that may be  the means by which a child will come to a  more mature and balanced understanding.

I read recently that one of the reasons some children act out with aggressive behavior toward other children and adults is that they have not had enough experience playing out different possibilities in a miniaturized, internal, pretend world, linking both negative and positive actions and consequences.

So when Aedan is fantasizing about skirmishing with the mean guys, he has actually already done some pretty important work.  He has separated himself into a ” not mean” category even as he is relishing his opportunity to understand, experience and enjoy the drama, power and fun of good vs. bad in play.

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