This isn’t to say I don’t ever establish any rules or communicate certain boundaries of my own. If safety (emotional or physical) is concerned I step in without a doubt. But I try to always prioritize involving children in the decision making process about their own behaviour.
I also reinforce this through brief group meetings that are embedded into our afternoon routine. We always gather together at the very beginning and at the very end of each session. It’s a time for announcements, questions, and discussion and I open up the floor for the children to bring up any thoughts they want to share about the day. Sometimes they bring up the conflicts that have occurred and we all take some time to address what happened and decide what to do about it. I act as the facilitator and mediator, but it is the children who are ultimately directing the discussion. I find these meetings useful in providing space and time for reflection, closure, and ensuring we’re all on the same page going forward.
The downside to these methods is they take much more time. Some conflicts take multiple days to resolve, as conversations continue and rules and behaviour are adjusted from one day to the next. The snowball conflict took a total of 4 afternoons to negotiate rules that felt good to everybody. It took about the same when it came to King/Queen of the hill. That’s a lot of time to invest in an experience that feels uncomfortable and even emotionally painful to some! Many of us would rather the negativity be eliminated as quickly as possible.
The upside however is that the children are learning crucial skills for getting along in a group. Skills like communication, listening, expressing feelings and needs, compromising, and problem-solving. Letting conflict play out also offers the opportunity to develop empathy while trying to understand and appreciate perspectives that are different from their own. All the while, the play that the children engaged with in the first place is allowed to continue rather than being banned by us adults, which preserves children’s autonomy to make decisions about their own play. Snowball fights allowed! King/Queen of the Hill allowed! Fort building allowed!
Recently another conflict arose in our group while the children were playing a hide and seek game. There was a misunderstanding about the rules and an argument broke out. The group came to me complaining and both sides began spewing their versions of what happened. I stood there silently and as they ranted, their attention started to shift from me to each other. They started to listen and talk to one another. They expressed how they felt (“It doesn’t feel fair!”) and what they wanted to change (“If you stop doing that, then we’ll stop doing this!”). Throughout the entire conversation I just stood there and said nothing until eventually they resolved it all and ran off to continue playing.
I wasn’t really needed at all to resolve the conflict. Why? Because ultimately children are much more competent and capable than we often give them credit for. Sometimes we just need to provide them with our trust, some time, and some space. This was confirmed by the children themselves when I asked them with genuine curiosity one day, “What do you think about the way we resolve conflicts here compared to what it’s like in school?”
Their answer? “It’s waaaayyy better!”