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It is only the third session in a new after school program. The children range in age between five and ten years old. They all attend the same school so they know each other quite well already. I, however, have only recently met them so don't know them that well at all. I'm still learning about their personalities, their likes and dislikes, and the already established relationships they all have with each other. This also means I'm learning to discern when conflict during their play requires my intervention...
Wait... can play - the behavior that's usually associated with laughter and fun - really include conflict - the behavior where people are usually unhappy, frustrated, or even angry? Turns out the answer is yes, and is demonstrated quite well when children are building shelters...
It seems to be a relatively universal play behavior for children to create homes and hideouts when they play (Gray, 2013; Sobel, 2008; Young et al., 2010). In my experience, it also seems to be universal that they become protective over them and priorities turn to finding ways to defend their shelters. Some create fortifications, assign a guard, build booby traps, or all of the above! Sometimes the children try to 'raid' each other's shelters and 'battles' ensue. This often means certain groups are prevented from entering other's shelters and are chased off... and that's when 'conflict' becomes a part of 'play'...
I firmly believe in the importance of children learning to resolve conflict for themselves so I try to interfere as little as possible. When a ten year old named Matt came over to tell me that one of the groups wasn't letting his team into their shelter, I first offered some guidance. I asked, "How do you feel about that?" Matt said, "Left out." So I asked, "Have you tried talking to them about it?" He said, "No..." So I replied, "What if you speak to them and let them know that you feel left out when they don't let you in?" He said, "Okay, I'll try."
A little while later Matt returned and said, "They're still not letting us in." So I asked, "Do you want my help?" He said, "Yes please."
I walked with Matt over to the group of seven year old boys who were protecting their shelter to try to help mediate the conflict. I asked, "So what's going on here?" and one of the seven year olds, named Eric, immediately launched into defence. He exclaimed, "We don't wan't them coming into our shelter because every time they come in they wreck it!" I looked over at Matt and he gave a little guilty smirk. So there was more to the story than Matt had initially revealed... Turns out he and another ten year old had been tricking the seven year olds into letting them into their shelter by promising them they wouldn't wreck it, but then would knock things over once they were inside and run away. The seven year olds had grown tired of this, so they had decided to flat out ban them from entering the shelter at all.
So I said, "Matt, Eric's saying that he and the others don't want to let you in because when you do, you wreck what they've been working on even though you promise not to. Sometimes when we say one thing and then do something else, it makes it hard for people to trust us."
Eric backed this up with, "Yeah, we can't trust that you're not going to destroy our shelter so that's why we don't want to let you in!"
Matt found this argument reasonable and said, "Yeah, that makes sense..."
So I offered a question to the group, "Is there some way we can work on building back trust?"
Immediately, Eric offered an idea that truly surprised me... He said, "You can build back our trust if every time you come to our shelter you listen to our rules first. If you listen to them and follow them, you'll regain 10% of our trust. It goes by tens, so if you do it ten times you'll regain 100% and then we'll trust you to come in whenever you want to."
Everyone agreed to this and their play continued. I watched and listened over the next 30 minutes as they ran around to each other's shelters, negotiating percentages of trust. When someone wouldn't follow a rule, I'd hear another person state, "Okay, now you've lost 10%! You were at 90%, but now you're at 80%!" They did this until finally all talks of percentages stopped and the conflict did too.
At the end of the session, I asked the children to reflect on any challenges they'd encountered throughout the afternoon and to share how they got through it. Matt's answer was, "Our challenge was fighting over the shelters. We tried to find ways to trust each other again and by the end we'd forgotten all about the fighting."
The experience was a good reminder that, yes, children sometimes need our help in resolving conflict. But that help doesn't have to be by giving the solutions. In Free to Learn, Peter Gray (2013) states,
“Adult direction leads to the assumption that rules are determined by an outside authority and thus not to be questioned. When children play just among themselves, however, they come to realise that rules are merely conventions, established to make the game more fun and more fair, and can be changed to meet changing conditions. For life in a democracy, few lessons are more valuable” (pg. 160)
So rather than being referees in children's play, our role can be as facilitators and mediators. Indeed, the resolutions to conflicts during play can come from the children themselves... which apparently might even involve sophisticated percentage methods!
Math teachers around the world, be proud :)
Gray, P. (2013). Free to Learn. Basic Books: New York, NY.
Sobel, D. (2008). Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators. Stenhouse Publishers: Portland, ME
Young, J., Haas, E., McGown, E. and Louv, R. (2010). Coyote’s guide to connecting with nature. 2nd edn. OWLLink Media: Santa Cruz, CA.