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.