At first glance, it may seem like chaos. Before you can even see them, you can hear them, shrieking with delight, growling and roaring as they role play, and chugging like train engines on a track. As you come around the corner, you may see someone dashing across the sand or jumping down from the play structure, leaping out over the tire “steps”. My senses take in all of it. In front of the structure, my attention is captured by a very developed game that is going on. I find an inconspicuous spot to sit down and observe. There are children on each side of the structure. One child attempts to throw a large green ball over the top of the structure to another child who is waiting on the other side. Some attempts are successful and others demand a retry. The children are taking turns..some decide to kick the ball as well. Some attempts to kick the ball send it right back into the kicker’s face, but the children quickly figure out that throwing it over has a better success rate. The children develop an order of turns that works at first and then leads to a discussion.
“It’s MY turn!”
“No, it’s not! It’s my turn!”
(At this point I am momentarily tempted to interject, but I wait and watch).
“No–it’s my turn! You can’t play if you don’t take turns. I am telling Mrs. Burton.”
Another child, who is playing as well, says, “Why don’t we do it together?” That satisfies everyone for a moment. The disgruntled child walks back to join the group. The children resume turn-taking and after a few more rounds, the rules seem to change again.
“Let’s do it together– no, only two people can do it at a time.” One child stomps away…
“What’s wrong?”, another child calls out.
“I don’t want to play if you are only going to tell me what to do.”
“Hey, I have a good idea! let’s see who can kick the ball the farthest.” The child stomps back, intrigued by the thought of a new game and new rules.
Then it is over. The children have moved on to something else, but lots of learning practice took place in those 15-20 minutes of observation. What would have happened if I had stepped in earlier? Of course, I can’t know for sure, but I feel as if I would have stolen the opportunity for these children to problem solve, negotiate, take the perspective of another person and show empathy. Such rich learning goes on in the context of free play and we so often interrupt that learning by inserting our adult perspectives too soon. Children will ask when they need help negotiating a situation or communicating their feelings to another child. My job is to maintain a watchful eye and to be ready to assist when needed. Children need to know that i am there…it is part of building trust and supporting the children and their play. They gain confidence in navigating social situations while I watch and wait.