You can’t play

It’s a typical scene – two young children pretend playing in the tent at Play Shoppe.  Looks like fun – another child tries to move on in.

“You can’t come in” , often forcefully repeated until the “tent crasher” gives up or an adult comes to his rescue.

This is always a difficult moment for parents to observe when their child is being less than kind to another.  But, often, in their young minds, they feel totally in the right – after all, they were the first ones in the tent, and the “game” they were pretending was only for two.

Exclusion of others is a standard preschool power play, but there are some ways we can help our children to be mindful of how it makes someone feel.

Warmly including others is important for us to model for our children in our daily life – by letting children hear us openly invite another to share our play, our snack, our sled, a ride home, to play in our yard, to stay for lunch.  Modeling to our children – being generous in spirit – can become a way of life for them.

Sensitize our children’s abilities to read emotional clues on other people’s faces.  Do you think he feels sad, mad, happy?  With your own children, validate their emotions which will improve their ability to offer this empathy to others.  When reading together, talk about how your child thinks the boy in the story is feeling and why. Listen to and  problem solve with children in their own social missteps.

Social exclusion, however,  is also a pretty powerful feeling for the children doing the excluding.  If a child is excluding others frequently, perhaps take a look at different ways he/she may need to feel more in charge of her life, more significant, more powerful.  Simple decisions, age-appropriate choices, trusting in your children’s capable physical and hands-on abilities may help them  feel more important in their own right.

And an interesting twist on time outs is that they actually represent social exclusion to our children, and thus are as likely to backfire, especially if we overuse them, as teaching them not to hit by hitting.

Of course, there are times in families especially, when children need their space, their alone moments to play, to think, to read, to create, to daydream.  These are necessary and should be respected as much as possible.

But for the times when open play is the name of the game, we can take the rule that Vivian Paley instituted in her book by the same name, “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play”.  Then when there are those power play incidents of exclusion, you can get right to the point, as Ms. Paley says, “Oh, did you forget the rule?”

“You can’t say you can’t play.”

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