Power Play in Preschool

I went into teaching because I believe that our educational system is an essential arm of our democracy. Schools are microcosms of our society and teach children what democracy is and how to be citizens. Some schools teach children how to be active and empowered, while other schools teach compliance.  Our mission at CCS is to cultivate a school world in which students build the identity and skills of active and accountable citizens.  Among other things, this necessitates that we build a culture of empathy into our school and teach consent.

At CCS we allow kids to to play out what we call “power play”.  We use this umbrella term to describe the different ways kids play as they explore feelings of dominance and ways of being powerful.  This kind of play often includes chase games, pretend weapon games and lots of “good guy/bad guy” scenarios. Many caring teachers and parents worry that this kind of play may desensitize children to violence, creating and supporting a culture already too violent. While we understand an empathize with this concern, we’ve actually found that the opposite occurs at CCS. Children learn to understand ideas by incorporating them into their play, and we’ve found that disallowing power play means that children never get to build an understanding of ideas like good and bad, dominance and safety, etc. Instead, when we allow this play in an environment with attentive adults and a compassionate community, children can build nuanced understanding and complex skills for negotiating these issues. (For more on the importance of this kind of play please check out my earlier blog on the subject: https://childrenscommunity.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/gunweapon-play-in-early-childhood/ or this article http://www.education.com/reference/article/banning-war-superhero-play-children/)

This play invites kids to explore important feelings, and it demands that teachers do important work. As teachers are guiding kids in power play, it is an opportunity to deepen and invite more nuanced understandings. In meetings, our teachers ask questions such as, “What is a bad guy?”, and discuss stories with complicated characters. Teachers seek to create disequilibrium to the standard “good guy/bad guy” plots. They join kids in play and invite them to imagine what could happen if there was no jail.

Allowing power play in an early childhood classrooms is really just the first step. The ensuing steps teachers must take include weaving empathy and perspective taking into play and teaching kids about consent.

As you can imagine, some kids love power play and some kids are scared of it. Regardless, teachers and kids alike, are responsible for creating a space at school that all kids feel safe and happy playing in.  Creating a culture of consent has been key to creating a play space that meets the needs of all of our children.

How do you teach consent to preschoolers?
This year in our Magnolia classroom with children ages three through five, we began by talking in a class meeting about the power play games.  Laura, one of the classroom co-teachers, began the class meeting by asking, “We’ve been noticing a lot of kids like to play bad guys or games with pretend weapons.  We’ve also noticed that some kids get scared. How do you feel about this kind of play?”
Everyone in the class had a chance to share how power play makes them feel.  We heard everything from “They have a real battle.  That’s a bad feeling because I don’t know what to do in the game.  They always pretend they have a lot more power than me.” to ” I play bad guys and good guys.  When I play on the bad guy team I have weapons and when I am on the good guy team I have weapons.  I feel good.”

This conversation empowered everyone to share their perspective.  It invited all of the children to be aware that we have different points of view around this kind of play.

In our next conversation with the class, Laura summarized that we have this problem. She explained that we have a problem as some kids really like to power play games and other kids are scared by them.  She established that school needs to be a place where kids can feel safe and happy playing and then she asked them for their ideas to solve this problem.

Many kids suggested that when someone starts to pretend shoot at you, you could advocate for yourself, saying “I’d don’t like that play!” or that “If someone doesn’t want to play, they could just not play.” Laura pointed out that those suggestions don’t fix the problem as kids will still be getting scared by other kids’ play. She prompted them for other ideas.

Related or not, our conversations were occurring around election day and many of the kids rallied around solutions that involved building a wall; such as, “We could build an enormous wall, the wall would be so long you could have a gate so if you want to play bad guys you could go through the gate.” The kids ruminated on this idea and even proceeded with wall building in the yard.

We regrouped and discussed several reasons why building a wall would not work as a solution. Laura then shared, “I want to tell you what we thought was a good solution and then I want to hear what you think about it. We thought if you want to play a bad guys game or a pretend weapons game or a chase game, you have to ASK first.” Laura gave an example of what this might look like.  Then she asked for feedback from the class.

Kids responded with ideas like, “Sometimes, I will say no, and sometimes I will say yes.  If I say yes, then I’ll be the chaser.” or “I’m going to show you, I’m going to show you.  If you ask them and they say no, then you can’t chase them.  If they say yes, then you can chase them, but it’s not going to be the same answer everyday.”

Next Laura asked them if they had ever heard of the word consent and if so what it meant.  Many kids had heard of this word, but no one knew what it meant.  Laura explained that consent is when someone says yes; when someone gives you permission.  She then illustrated a few examples and connected it back to the power play conversation.

We have been following up these conversations with games that give kids a chance to practice asking for consent.  These games also give kids a chance to practice what to say or do if someone says no.  We have played games in our meeting time in which each child turns to the person next to them and asks if they can touch them somewhere on their body.  For example, one child turns turns to her neighbor and asks, “Can I touch you on your nose?” The neighbor then replies with a yes or no.  Or in the case of our game, many kids even replied by saying, “No, but you can touch me on the knee.”  Laura ended the first round of the game by saying, “I noticed something pretty cool in this consent game.  Some people said yes, some people said no, and some people said no, but you can touch somewhere else.”

We have also been following up in play.  We are watching the childten closely as they engage in power play games.  At first we had to step in frequently to remind them to get consent before playing. We have to do this less so now, but since our culture of consent is still gaining a footing we remain vigilant. This experience has been powerful because we are not only teaching our kids to do something, like ask for consent, but we are establishing it as a norm and teaching kids to expect it.

As I think of our school as a microcosm of our world and of our students as future citizens, I see the importance of “power play” not just as opportunity to explore ideas and feelings but as an opportunity to develop the essential skills needed in a democracy such as perspective taking and asking for consent.

We Did It!

Two weeks ago we learned that CCS has gained accreditation from the National Association of Young Children—only the sixth school in west Philly to do it! NAEYC is the national standard bearer for early childhood education, and to gain their accreditation programs must go through a rigorous process to demonstrate their quality in ten different areas.

Accreditation took us over two years. It included multiple surveys of families and staff; in-depth self-examination of our program; creation of new policies and practices; and detailed documentation of everything from how we create curriculum to how children wash their hands before snack. After two years of preparation, it all boiled down to what the assessors would see on the day of the site visit, which came on June 15th, right at the end of last school year. We knew we were a good school, but what if our documentation didn’t do enough to demonstrate our quality? What if one of the classrooms just had a rough day? What if, what if?

As it turned out, our preparation paid off. We not only passed, but received commendations in seven out of ten categories, in which we scored 100% or above. Two classrooms were observed individually, requiring scores of 70% or above to pass—Redbud scored 95%, Magnolia scored 96%. The bar was set very high, and though it may be immodest to say it, we went even higher.


The job isn’t done, though. Maintaining accreditation over time means engaging in continual program improvement. This year and beyond we’ll be working on developing ourselves, both in areas of our school that NAEYC indicated, such as our science curriculum, and areas of our program that we’ve identified ourselves, such as our social justice initiative. NAEYC accreditation is a big step, but as lifelong learners we know we’ll always have more to do to become the school we want to be.

So why did we do it? Why go through so much?

Well, in part, there are a lot of ways being accredited will benefit our school. For instance, accreditation will open us up to the possibility of accepting children through Pre-K Counts and Head Start, helping us reach a wider range of children and families as well as diversify our funding. Accreditation will also open us up to grants—most funders will barely pick up the phone for a school that’s not accredited.

In part we also sought accreditation as an indicator of our quality. NAEYC sets the most widely-recognized standard for quality in early childhood education, and their seal of approval makes people pay attention. Many educators from other preschools have made a point of complimenting us: “Wow, NAEYC? Congratulations! And in your sixth year, that’s huge!” And many families search out NAEYC accredited programs when looking for preschools—we’re looking forward to more Philadelphia families knowing who we are.

But a huge part of the the benefits of accreditation start well before actually getting accredited—the process itself did us a lot of good. Accreditation involves a rigorous self-examination process aimed at helping schools examine existing practices and implement positive changes. Going through accreditation led us to articulate and define practices that we had previously done anew each time, such as codifying our curriculum around community-building. It led us to create important policies and practices that we had never quite gotten around to before, such as a clear hiring procedure. It led us to ask new questions of families and create new ways to meet more of their needs, such as our community email group and new kinds of workshops and events for families. And it led us recognize and recommit to our core strengths as a program, such as relationship building and communication.

When we assess children, we work hard to make sure that our assessments are not merely measurements of children’s learning, but learning experiences in and of themselves. Similarly, we knew that NAEYC accreditation would be a good fit for us because it was so clear that it was not just a measurement of our quality, but a process by which we would improve our quality. There is a lot of good that being accredited will do for us, but the best is that we’re a better school than we were before we started.

Onward and upward!

When All the Choices are Good

It’s that time of year when we start asking families to tell us about their plans for enrolling again in the fall. Which means it’s also the time of year for families to be thinking about what school situation is best for their children. In a school like ours, with mixed-age classrooms and a variety of enrollment schedules, it can feel like there are a lot of decisions to make, and like it’s hard to make the right choice. Fortunately, one of the reasons we set up our program with so many options is that all of the options have their benefits.

IMG_9134It’s good to be one of the oldest kids in the class. You’re probably ahead of a lot of your classmates developmentally, so you develop the confidence that comes when you find that things are pretty easy for you. A lot of the other kids look up to you, so you get to develop leadership skills, and you have the opportunity to learn things the best way: by teaching them to others. Younger children are influenced by your big ideas, so your interests drive a lot of what happens in class. Being the big fish in a small pond is great.

IMG_8922It’s good to be one of the youngest kids in the class. You’re surrounded by kids who know more than you do—and children learn very effectively from each other—so you learn a lot very quickly. You get a lot of attention from adults, and from older kids who like to feel like the big siblings. Bigger kids might “boss you around” sometimes, but what that really means is that they help you know how to participate in things you wouldn’t know how to do on your own. Being surrounded by people older than you is great.

It’s good to be in the same class for more than a year. You know all the routines, all the expectations, and all the tricks, so you start the year off feeling successful all the time. You walk in the door the first day with strong relationships, which are the driver of quality education, already in place. When the class revisits old topics you understand them on a deeper level than the first time around; when you explore new topics you’re flush with confidence and experience. Familiarity is powerful.

IMG_9120It’s good to move to a new class for a new year. Your new teachers and new environment ask you to level up your thinking and behavior. You can’t get away with whatever it was you got away with last year, and old compromises are swept away in a new environment. You meet everything with fresh eyes and new energy, and the learning comes fast and thick. It’s great to come in fresh for a new year.

It’s good to come to school five days a week. You can develop ideas from one day to the next, and your class takes on ambitious projects that sustain your attention over time. You delve deeply into ideas that would lose momentum if your schedule were broken up. You form deep relationships with people and comfortable connections with routines more quickly than you would with a shorter week. School feels comfortable and familiar; you feel like you own the place. Things just work great when you’re around every day.

IMG_8759It’s good to come to school just a few days a week. You get the benefits of school at a pace that makes sense for young children. You have great experiences with fun and learning at school without sacrificing time at home with your family. School feels like a special occasion every time, something to look forward to. It’s easy to keep the energy up when you’ve got a short week.

It’s good to come to school just in the mornings. You build strong connections with the people in your classroom who you see at school every day. You work hard in the mornings and then go home to relax in the afternoons. School feels like a special activity, one of many ways you spend your day, many interests in your life. Half a day is a great pace for young children.

IMG_9072It’s good to stay at school for aftercare. In the afternoon things slow down, the group gets smaller, and everything and everyone can relax. You’re with fewer kids, in a wider range of ages, so your teachers can be more flexible in changing plans to meet your needs as they arise and in taking advantage of learning opportunities that pop up unexpectedly. The focus on caregiving gives you a feeling that the school is more like a home, so when you stay for the afternoons you feel at home at school.

So… which choice is “best” for your child? It depends on what you’re hoping they get out of school. But it’s good to know that your child will get a lot of unique opportunities out of every option.


Before the First Day

Yesterday marked the final day of “Orientation”—the three weeks at CCS every year before kids show up when staff prepares for the year by setting up the classrooms, visiting families at home, planning for the year, and learning about new practices together. Every year at every school the days before children arrive are hectic and a little crazed, but this year at CCS was another level. In addition to all the normal start-of-year tasks, we added the fact that we’re setting up a new school site. And not only a new site, but a new site we didn’t expect to be in, and that we’ll only be in for a month or two, before moving to our new permenant home. Add to that the fact that fully half of our staff is new to CCS this year and every teaching team has only one returning staff member, and we’ve got ourselves a real rodeo of learning, adjusting, and non-stop decision-making.

Despite all that, the teachers have not only managed to overcome a thousand and one obstacles—they’ve also worked as individuals and teams to innovate, making exciting new plans for their practices this year.

The Redbud teachers—Natasha, Laura G, and Natali—were inspired by the number of families interested in spending time in the classroom. As they create CCS’ first-ever toddler classroom, they’re planning to make space for each child to have a special day to bring a family member into the classroom to meet their peers and share aspects of their home traditions. What a great way to build community and strengthen the connections between classroom and families!

The Oak team—Lisa, Karen, and Naomi—were excited about the “story workshop” practice we learned about two weeks ago. The practice, as we learned from the Opal School in Portland, involves setting aside regular time in the classroom specifically for children to tell and write stories, using particular prompts and language to inspire and encourage children’s creativity. Though this practice is new to our school, the Oak teachers are jumping right in, scheduling time for story workshop every day right off the bat. Look forward to a wealth of storytelling coming out of the Oak classroom this fall!

Jordan and Laura O, the Magnolia teachers, were struck by a thought about a part of our practice that could be easy to overlook. Every day each classroom sends out an email to its families with photos and notes about what happened at school that day. Jordan and Laura thought, “Why not have the kids help with that?” Among many other classroom jobs this year the Magnolia children will take on this fall, two children every day will be the “documentarians,” carrying cameras with them to document what THEY see as the important parts of the day, and helping send their observations out to the families. Talk about empowerment!

Zahra is bringing new focus this year to the aftercare program. She’s been interested in the mindfulness and reflection practices she’s learned about during orientation, and will be creating a practice every afternoon for children to reflect on their experiences earlier in the day. Zahra is creating strategies so that children at all ages, from 18 months to 5 years, will be able to meaningfully share their thoughts and memories with each other.

In addition to these innovations from each teaching team, each individual teacher is making plans to develop aspects of their own personal practices. Some want to push themselves to write more, planning to write posts for the school blog or articles for publication. Some want to expand their strategies for introducing more cultures to the children. Some are building classroom management skills. Some want to push themselves to be more rigorous in their curriculum planning. All are choosing ways to push themselves to learn and grow throughout the year.

To say that I am proud of this staff of teachers is an understatement. These teachers are working in a start-of-year context that would be easy and reasonable to be overwhelmed by—but they are walking into school every morning saying, “Yes! I am willing and eager to try new things, to take risks, to push myself, in the name of being the best teacher I can be.” This is one dedicated group of educators, and they’re going to rock this year. I can’t wait.


Connecting with Families, Connecting with Children

Some months ago Merryl was at a workshop through the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC) when someone mentioned, “It’s so sad that no one lets children be around fire any more.” Merryl approached them afterwards to say, “Actually, CCS has a community campfire twice a year, and children cook food on sticks over the fire! It’s a great way to connect with families!” “Super! Can you write about it for our newsletter?”

So we did! The article, by Merryl and Jarrod, grew to encompass a variety of ways CCS connects families to children’s learning. Click on the photo to view a nicely formatted PDF, or scroll down to read it here.


Fire and Ice

by Merryl Gladstone and Jarrod Green

Published in DVAEYC Connection, Spring 2015

Community, Mindfulness, and Inquiry are the three pillars that guide our program at the Children’s Community School, a democratic preschool in West Philadelphia. Through children’s play, we seek to deepen connections, broaden awareness of self, and facilitate critical thinking and exploration.

We recognize the power and importance of engaging not just children but also their families in educational experiences. Each child, while a unique individual, is intricately threaded into the life of their family. Our impact on each child’s learning and development is exponentially increased when we engage families in interactive experiences with their children. Here are a few recent opportunities we’ve created for children and families to learn together.


On a Saturday night in October we held our semiannual sing-along campfire. Families and teachers gathered around a fire-pit in Clark Park. The children roasted bannock dough over the fire (bannock bread is a bread cooked on sticks over an open fire!); several people brought guitars and led songs; the adults chatted as children chased and laughed in the cool evening air. A campfire is an opportunity to connect to each other, to our surroundings, and to ourselves—in other words, to build community. Everyone loves sharing food and music and warmth while surrounded by trees and friends. Our campfire is also a way for families to connect to our educational program, even though we’re not at school. In October, families heard some great songs that their children love, and we had a chance to mention how rhythm and rhyme support early literacy. Children told their parents about how they made the dough and searched for roasting sticks the previous day, and their parents saw how projects and thinking can be extended over time. As teachers crouched over the fire alongside children and families, we modeled how we communicate trust and allow children opportunities for independence and self-regulation, even around a campfire!


One morning in December the children went out to the yard and discovered that the previous day’s rain had collected in buckets and containers and then frozen solid overnight! Of course, this led to a day of fascinated investigation (touching the ice, trying to break it, standing on it, bringing it inside and watching it melt, etc.) and curiosity (where did the ice come from? how could we make more? what will happen to it?).

We wanted to extend this learning experience, so at the end of the day we suggested to families that they leave a bowl of water outside overnight and let their children investigate what happened. We offered them examples of open-ended questions they might ask their children, such as “What do you think will happen next?” One of the families did us one better: they came to school the next day with the ice they made overnight at home! The whole class’ interest was rekindled, and the children explored the ice with new vigor and asked questions of the child who brought it.

By giving families an easy way to participate in this spontaneous project, we weren’t just telling them about how children investigate ideas over time, we were showing them and inviting them to join us in the inquiry.


We consistently hear from our families that they learn more about parenting and good educational practices when they have hands-on support in learning and playing with their kids. This spring we’ve created several workshops for families and children together. Teacher Martha is the founder of StoryUp, an organization that creates interactive storytelling workshops for all ages of children and their parents. On a Saturday morning in January she invited children and their families to come to school and work together on storytelling projects. Martha led everyone through the process of creating and sharing stories around children’s ideas, guiding parents and children in active play and story-building. While the children played, she also shared tips with families on ways to create similar experiences at home, and described how this kind of play supports not only literacy but also critical thinking, cooperation, and self-regulation.

In March Teacher Jarrod will offer a similar whole family workshop on rough-housing. All-ages workshops create pathways for families to connect in new ways with both the school and their children, as they participate actively in their children’s learning experiences and receive support in trying out new approaches.

The campfire, the ice-making, and the workshops are just a few ways that we invite families to interactively connect with their children, the classroom curriculum, and our school. Families aren’t just seeing what their children learn at school, they’re participating in it; they’re not just getting tips from us, they’re seeing us practice what we preach. We know that it’s not just kids who learn best by playing and doing—grownups do too!

Dice Matching

Back in October, I wrote a piece about the Oak Classroom’s “Practice Spot”—the area in the classroom with one-child activities intended to build specific skills—and about a particular activity where children could push milk caps into a coffee can.

This week I made a new activity:


There row of colored dice is glued down in numerical order; the bowl of matching dice is glued on as well. I drew an empty square for each matching die below, and the numeral above.

As an adult, you probably look at this immediately and think, “Obviously, I would line up each die in its little box, matching both the color and the number.” And indeed, that’s what some of the older children in class have naturally done:


It’s always gratifying when this kind of activity is clear enough that children know just what to do without any instructions. (This is, of course, is a contrast to the vital use of open-ended materials, which have no “right” way to be used. For great thoughts on open-ended materials and play, read about sticks and boxes and hay bales and milk crates and paper and glue and colored doohickies.)

But how would a younger child interact with this activity, I wondered? I didn’t have long to wait before a 2½ year old took up the challenge:

Notice how she immediately starts matching by color, but then stops to investigate the stuck-ness of the dice. Notice how she pauses considering the black vs navy blue dice. Notice how she immediately gets the idea of matching, but takes awhile to figure out where to put each matched one. Notice how the black vs navy blue question comes up a second time, and how thoughtfully she solves it. Notice how she’s working hard on the fine-motor aspects of the activity, both carefully stacking the dice and accidentally knocking them down. Notice how there’s a point where she’s clearly decided, “Stacking these is the way to go,” and doesn’t deviate from that plan again. You’ll have to take my word for it that when she spilled them all (an honest mistake; how was she to know the bowl was glued down?) she smiled, and did indeed do the activity again.

The little boxes I drew, the numerals, the number of pips showing on each die—none of these were salient details for this child yet. And there’s no reason they should be—she’s only 2½! But those aspects of the activity are there to be discovered. As she plays with this activity, or with dice in another context, or with similar games and materials, sooner or later she’ll naturally have an “Aha!” moment: “Hey, there are numbers here!” This activity sets her up for that realization, but doesn’t require us to push her on it.

The only challenge left for me is to figure out how to re-make this so the children don’t curiously try to pull off the glued dice, which they’ve already done successfully a few times. Perhaps cardboard was the wrong medium for this one…

Deepening Children’s Ideas

Emergent curriculum (part of the approach we use at CCS) creates lesson plans based on children’s ideas, interests, and needs. When emergent curriculum goes well, it not only gets children more invested in school activities, but also helps them build an identity as powerful, capable learners. When I visited the Magnolia classroom one day last week there were several moments where teachers noticed children’s ideas and successfully channeled attention to deepen their thinking.

watchDuring choice time at the start of the day the Magnolia children often play “hospital,” taking turns acting as doctors and patients. The play is thoughtful and cooperative, but today Teacher Jordan wanted to take things a little deeper. The day before Jordan had used the iPad to take a short video of the children’s game; then she asked if anyone would like to watch yesterday’s game. Of course the children were fascinated to see themselves and gathered close. After watching, Jordan asked some careful questions to get the children to extend their play. Specifically, she asked, “If your game were a story, what would happen next?”

doctor“We would have to go out in the snow to get the diphtheria medicine!” someone suggested. This child was connecting the game to another class interest: the true story of Balto the sled dog, who carried medicine to sick children in Alaska in the 1920s. When the game restarted, the doctors ran off into the gym to search for medicine, barking as they went. By joining the two play ideas together, the children deepened their understanding of a favorite story.
bookLater at the art table several children were talking about the story of Balto and making drawings based on favorite scenes from the story. This led Jordan to create some related activities for centers time. At one table children could choose to work together on creating their own Balto book; Jordan and I scaffolded them to not only choose favorite scenes from the story to draw, but to listen to each other’s ideas to make sure drawings weren’t being duplicated, and to pay attention to what was already drawn so that gaps could be filled in. At another table children could choose to work on a giant map of the Balto story; inspired by a page of the book with a map of Alaska, several children draw various locations from the story and the connections between them. Each activity helped children deepen their understanding of both this particular story, as they re-created it, and of literacy in general.

At lunch time several children mentioned that they knew Balto was a real story — it really happened in real life. This led to a conversation about what stories they knew were true and what stories they knew were pretend, and how you could tell the difference. I offered to tell them a story, and let them try to figure out if it was true or pretend. They were excited about the idea, so I told a story about how when my little brother was born, my parents accidentally went to the zoo instead of the hospital and ended up bringing home a series of animal babies instead of a “person baby.”

When the story was over I asked what they thought, and most of the kids said it was a true story. Then I asked about individual parts of the story, and whether those things happen in real life (“Do people have babies in real life?” Yes! “Do people mix up babies with animals in real life?” No!). When we re-polled, most of the kids now thought the story was pretend.

mapWe brainstormed some ways that we could find out for sure whether the story was true, and someone said maybe we could talk to my parents — so we called my dad on the phone! He answered (luckily), and told the kids that no, there were no animals around when my brother was born. (Well, at first he thought that I wanted him to play along, and said, “Yes, it’s true!” But when I asked for a really true answer, he gave in and told the truth.)

The whole conversation was a way to take an idea the children were exploring — that some stories and true and others aren’t — and ask them to think more carefully.

At CCS we have many ways to plan activities that deepen children’s thinking. But sometimes the most powerful learning experiences are the ones that arise spontaneously. When we pay attention we find wonderful opportunities to ask children to think again, to think deeply, to think critically.

Gun/Weapon Play in Early Childhood

We have heard from a few parents that they would like some support around gun/weapon play. This is an issue that we have all grappled with at CCS. In fact we are all not still in agreement and plan to continue discussing and exploring this issue over the course of the coming year. It is a complex issue, particularly in light of recent events in our nation. We know that gun/weapon play will have different implications in different communities, and we hope to make sense of what it means at CCS with a sensitivity and an awareness of what is happening in our larger world.

In the meantime, I thought it would be helpful if I shared one perspective and invited you to share your views as well.

Gun play has always been problematic for me. I don’t enjoy being pretend shot, nor am I really comfortable with something as serious as guns and weapons being a part of a child’s play. In my training and in my years of teaching since, I have always implemented the school rule: no gun play at school. In my first teaching job at the Bank Street School for Children, when it would come up, we would simply explain, “Guns are too scary. We don’t play with them at school.” It wasn’t a very effective rule as gun play would continue to come up throughout the year. Guns are a part of our world and present in our media. Children seem to have an insatiable curiosity about them and their power.

Telling children not to pretend play with guns, in my experience, never felt very effective. It often just drove the play underground.  Hiding a desire or curiosity is never a goal in the education world.

In November, I attended Elizabeth Criswell’s NAEYC talk in which she explored zero-tolerance gun play policies and shared how and why she tried to create space in her early childhood classroom for gun/weapon play. It was eye-opening and a relief to hear her ideas and experiences.

Elizabeth shared that she decided to change the zero-tolerance policy in her classroom because she felt first and foremost, it wasn’t working. It was fostering a culture of dishonesty in her classroom. In having a zero-tolerance policy, Elizabeth wondered what message she was sending to children about their imagination and what message she was sending about the difference between real and pretend.

She turned to research and learned that gun or weapon play is a universal truth in early childhood. Studies where gun play is permitted show a short spike in aggressive behavior, but then this behavior notably recedes as the games are allow to progress. Lastly, her research affirmed that “aggressive”, rough and tumble play, play fighting have been consistently linked to increased social competencies.

To change her practice in her classroom, she first had a conversation with her teaching team and school administrators. She then had a conversation with parents. Then she had an honest conversation with her class. Also, of note, she never provided any kid with a pretend weapon. All weapons were made by kids from sticks, legos, etc…

Here are some of the rules she used in her classroom as well as ideas I have implemented in my interactions with kids:

  • Create a Culture of Consent! You have to ask a person before you play a gun/weapon game with them. “Do you want to play guns with me?” or “I’m playing XX, do you want to be shot?” (This means you can not go up and pretend to shoot someone who is NOT in your game. ).
  • Make clear to all kids: It is okay to pretend play with guns in our classroom. Because guns are so scary for people, it is not okay to play with pretend guns outside of our classroom. Always check with an adult first.
  • Make clear to all kids: When we are playing with pretend guns, they are not real.  Real guns are dangerous.  If you find one, you should never touch it.  You should tell an adult.

Of course general play rules apply as well:

  • No one has to be the bad guy- grown-ups too! When my kids want to pretend play with guns at home, I regularly tell them that I don’t want to be shot and I don’t want to be the bad guy. I suggest they build a bad guy out of blocks, used stuffed animals or make one out of paper.
  • Adults need to be on the look out for kids who seem scared or bothered. Players need to know that play can be stopped at anytime and should be on the look out that play has gotten too rough or scary for a friend.

Adults can also help to support more complex conversations around pretend gun play. Here are some prompts and questions Elizabeth suggests:

  • What will happen when you shoot the dragon? What will happen next?
  • What would you do if you found a real gun? What would it look like? Should you touch it?

Elizabeth suggested that certain phrases could reinforce that this pretend gun play is indeed pretend. Phrases like:

  • I’m glad you are just pretending because if that were real, it would really hurt.
  • I’m going going to pretend with you, but if that were real, it would really be dangerous.

In the end, Elizabeth found that as it was in the studies she read, when gun play is allowed and is treated like any other type of play, it eventually moves from high interest to the periphery.

Play is a tool that children use to explore and know their world. When children are given the chance to explore and play with weapon play, it eventually gets played out. They have explored it and they are not as driven to explore it. It seems to me a better outcome then if we are to deny them the the chance to explore an issue they are curious about and as a consequence they feel they have to hide their interest or curiosity.

Lastly, I invited CCS teachers to weigh in on this topic. Some teachers said for many reasons they are not ready to include weapon play in the classroom. Jarrod weighed in too.  Here are the top 2 things he wanted to share with families:

  • Violent play doesn’t AT ALL mean kids will be violent people. Especially if they have caring responsive adults to talk through what comes up. Play as a space to rehearse and understand issues, see what consequences are.
  • Weapon play has a different valence/weight for kids than for adults –like with other parts of learning, we can try to look at it thru kids’ eyes!

Please share your views! What does weapon play mean in your household? What are your thoughts on this weapon play and kids?

If you are looking for further reading on this issue:

We Don’t Play with Guns Here: War, Weapon and Superhero Play in the Early Years

Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence

Who’s Calling the Shots?: How to Respond Effectively to Children’s Fascination with War Play, War Toys and Violent TV

The end of this article shares an overview of what talking to kids about gun/violence might look like at different ages: http://www.ahaparenting.com/ask-the-doctor-1/talking-with-children-about-racism-police-brutality-and-protests

Milk Caps and Coffee Cans

In the Oak Classroom this year we have a little corner that we call the Practice Spot. It’s a tiny table, just big enough for two child-sized chair. In front of each chair there’s a rectangle taped out on the table, just the size of a certain kind of tray. And there’s a shelf next to the table, exactly the size to hold four trays, each with a single activity on it.

The rules in the Practice Spot are different than in the rest of the room. Other places in the room activities and materials are open-ended (meaning there’s no single “right way” to use them), but here they’re closed-ended (there’s only one way to use them). In the rest of the room you can take toys to new spots and combine them with other materials however your creativity dictates, but here you must keep the tray in the spot and put it back as soon as you’re done. In the rest of the room children are welcome, nay encouraged, to work together on activities, but here there’s a one-person-per-activity rule.

The intention is to have a particular spot in the room where children can be organized—where they can organize their thinking by organizing their behavior. This kind of activity is championed in Montessori schools; at CCS it’s one of a number of approaches we use to support children’s cognitive development.

To see the benefits of the Practice Spot and its activities, take a look at this game I made last week. (You can make it too! More or less for free!) It’s a coffee can with a slit cut through the lid (I taped the edges of the slit, to make it more visible) and a bowl full of those plastic caps that come on the tops of plastic milk containers. Take a look at the activity in action:

One of the things you’ll notice is that the activity has a “right way” to use it, but it doesn’t require any instructions. Most children as young as two years old look at it and immediately know what it’s for: obviously, you push the milk caps through the slit. These kinds of activities that “talk” to children help them be organized and calm in their play, because there’s no uncertainty in it. It’s so obvious, in fact, that when the caps spill on the tray this child doesn’t hesitate to carefully put them all back into the bowl, without anyone telling her to. It’s just clear that where they’re meant to go.

You’ll also notice how hard this child is working simply to get each cap into the can—she really has to push! She’s building fine motor skills—hand strength and coordination. Fine motor skills are an important part of development in and of themselves, but they’re also a crucial precursor to literacy: you can’t write letters if your hands aren’t prepared to hold a pencil and make an accurate mark. But in this activity we don’t have to encourage children to do hand exercises; it’s fun enough that this child immediately takes off the lid and does it again! In fact this video was taken the fifth time in a row the child did this activity, and she did it three more times after.

The fact that she keeps doing it again and again is called “intrinsic motivation.” In other words, she keeps doing it because it just feels really satisfying. That’s not an accident, of course. Your brain is set up to reward you for figuring thing out—it’s one of the things that makes our species so successful. You get that little thrill of pleasure every time you think, “Oh, so that’s how it works!” For an adult it might take a big experience to get that feeling—solving a complicated problem at work, for instance. For a two-year-old it can be as simple as figuring out where a puzzle piece goes, or how to take off the lid of a coffee can.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that this particular activity makes such a satisfying sound every time a cap drops in. Did you notice how this child says, “There! I heard it!” about 7 seconds into the video? In fact, this activity brings out a lot of language for this child. “Push! Push!” she says again and again. “I’ll try this one.” “Now, open!” “Spill, spill, spill…” Simple activities can be great ways to boost language development.

And what about problem-solving? Did you notice what happens when she can’t get the white cap in at first? She tries several different hand/finger/arm positions trying to get it in, before switching to another cap. Then she comes back to the white one at the end, and gets it in right away. That experience is a tiny life lesson: that persistence pays off, that regrouping and trying again leads to success. Lots of little experiences like this add up, and generalize to much more complex experiences, like learning to read, or learning to make friends.

Organization, fine motor skills, problem solving, language development, persistence… Not a bad list of skills for a game made from stuff foraged from the recycling bin!

We rotate new activities into the Practice Spot every few days. Some of them are specialized toys, but most are simple and home-made: little toy bears that can be put onto spots that match their colors; a matching game made from pictures from a catalogue; a shoe-lace and a card with holes punched in it. And we’re always on the look-out for more easy-and-cheap-to-make activities that are fun for kids and support development. What games have you made for kids? Share your ideas in the comments!

A Commercial-Free Childhood

At the Children’s Community School, we are interested in having the imaginations of our children fill our classroom space.  We want what the children dream to color and design our classroom.  To this end, we ask that parents help us to make our school a commercial-free space.  This means no commercial characters (super heroes, princesses, cartoons characters, etc…) on backpacks, lunch boxes, towels, shoes, clothes, etc…  This will help us as we work to encourage children’s sense of independence as well as their skills for nonviolent problem-solving and conflict resolution.  We are open to talking more about this and are happy to answer any questions you may have.  Thank you!

The above statement is from our Staff Handbook (and our soon-to-be released Family Handbook!). At the start of every year, new families have questions about the details of the policy. I (Jarrod) thought it’d be worthwhile to write down my take on the issue.

At CCS, we believe in the power and importance of children’s play. Play is how children learn about the world, how they investigate ideas, how they take abstract concepts and make them real, how they experiment with relationships and interactions and social strategies. And though there is a place for adults’ ideas in children’s play, the real learning happens when children are playing with THEIR ideas. Children have a natural ability to seek out the ideas and the challenges that their brains need. When you see a child finish a jigsaw puzzle and dump it right out again, you might be seeing the child’s brain saying, “I just learned a little about spatial relationships! Do it again so I can learn more!” When you see a child spend an hour chasing in circles around the gym with friends, the child’s brain is probably saying, “There are rules of social interactions here that I need to investigate!” When you see children playing dress up and cooking a dinner for a baby doll, their brains are saying, “We kind of know what it means to be a family, but we need to figure it out with some practice!” When children play with their own ideas, they are seeking out the learning that their brains need.


So where does media come into this? Well, as you’ve certainly seen, children love to imitate things they’ve seen in movies and TV shows. “I’m Spider-Man! Here are my webs!” “I’m Dora, this is my backpack.” “I’m Belle and you’re Ariel and you’re Merida and you can be Mulan.” Sound familiar? There’s no problem with this per se — in fact, taking on characters and acting out scenarios is a crucial way that children understand stories, and a great tool for literacy. But what we’ve seen over and over again — and I should pause to say that, in this case, when I say “we” I mean me (Jarrod), and the staff of CCS, and, by and large, the field of early childhood education as a whole. What we’ve seen over and over again is that this kind of play often fails to ever develop beyond imitation. Children play out a script they’ve seen in a movie, and that’s it. Have you ever seen a child recite with astounding detail the plot of Star Wars, but then balk if you say, “How about this time Darth Vader changes his mind and helps Luke?” In my experience (I’m back to just speaking for me here, not for CCS or the field of early childhood ed), I’ve often seen “play” that doesn’t even rise to the level of imitation, but sticks to straight-up recitation. “I’m Iron Man!” “Great! What does Iron Man do?” “… I’m Iron Man!”


Children in these situations aren’t playing with THEIR ideas — they’re imitating the ideas of (let’s just be blunt here) multi-national corporations. Not that those ideas are intrinsicly bad. (For instance, I personally find many Pixar movies to be about as good as cinema gets.) But if children aren’t making the stories their own, then the learning that’s going on is surface-level at best.”Okay, fine,” says the astute reader, bringing superior critical-thinking skills to bear on the issue, “Why not just encourage the children to make the ideas their own? You’re a staff of dedicated educators. Why not push the kids to take that energy they have for media and channel it to good use? Have all the Disney princesses in the room go on an adventure to solve math problems or something?”


It’s a great idea, and last year the Oak class gave it a go. Throughout the early spring the children in the 3-day group showed a powerful interest in superheroes, in their talk and play and art. The play was a little simple — lots of shouting “I’m Batman!” and swinging their arms at each other, with no plot to speak of — but so much of the class was so interested in it. So, with a little trepidation, we decided to follow this interest and see where it would lead. We didn’t allow images of commerical superhero characters, but did a lot to bring our considerable curricular resources to bear on superheros, and a lot of it was, frankly, pretty cool. There was a costume-making and mask-making project that was very process-oriented but still resulted in some fantastic pieces of wearable art. There was a project where groups of kids would make up stories about superheros, then act out the stories, and then illustrate them and make books. We read Greek myths and folks tales that explored different ways to look at power and magic that the children were interested in. We investigated how kids can “save the day” even if they’re not superheros. And we had protracted class-wide conversations about how to keep other children safe when playing rough, how to listen to others’ ideas, how to cooperate in big group games. There was a LOT of great curriculum that happened, and the kids were pretty enthusiastic about it.But I remain ambivalent about the whole thing, because three months after we started, what did the kids do when we just let them play freely? They ran around shouting “I’m Batman!” and swinging their arms at each other, with no plot to speak of. We couldn’t see that their THINKING about superheroes had evolved at all, despite three months of intense investigation. They just wanted to act out the familiar scripts. The whole point of emergent curriculum is that the children’s interest will drive a project that will lead them to deepen their knowledge and thinking on a particular topic. The superhero project had a lot of great stuff in it, but it failed to deepen the children’s thinking about superheroes. (Or at least, as Merryl pointed out to me, their thinking about commercial superheroes, which isn’t the same thing…)

So, back to the “Commercial-Free Childhood” policy. For me, it’s fundamentally a question of creating our school as a space where children’s ideas are the primary thing. It seems like commercial narratives and characters get in the way of that, so as a school we choose not to allow images of commercial characters. It’s perhaps a simple response to a complex issue, but in our experience it makes a difference in how children learn and play.


What do YOU think? How have you seen commercial narratives and characters influence children’s play, or children’s thinking? What school policies have you seen successfully support children’s learning and meet children’s needs around media and commercial culture? What are your memories of commercial characters and play from your own childhood? Add your thoughts to the comments section of this blog post.