A new year, and this year will be the year when children’s behaviours will be universally understood. Well, OK, maybe that’s a little ambitious. We should start the year off by thinking small. I’ve spent the best part of this week thinking on the subject of behaviours, discussing it with various people, swapping emails, and being around children — one of whom acted in some quite challenging ways.
Thinking small doesn’t mean ‘thinking narrowly’. By ‘thinking small’ I mean thinking about our own understanding of children’s behaviours. Everyone could benefit by giving this area of thinking some consideration. When I write the word ‘behaviours’, I do it deliberately: in the plural rather than in the singular. The word ‘behaviour’ is far too easily linked with a negative socialisation way of thinking, or with other adult agendas of how children are expected to act and interact and be. Behaviours, plural, is a way of saying that children experience lots of ways of being.
Thinking small, thinking locally, thinking about my own practice and interactions with children, I know that — however I am on any given day — that is likely to affect the children around me in some way. Here’s the bottom line: if I’m in a room where there are also children present, I’m going to affect them.
Positively, if I’m true to my word and my teaching, and the children know that I am that guy who practises what he preaches, then anything can happen. ‘Stuff’ will get played with because it’s stuff and because it’s playable with. Spaces can be played in, ways of playing can be explored, etc.
Negatively, if I forget to ‘walk the walk’, if I lose focus, if I’m not true and honest to what I talk about, then children will react to that; they’ll interact back with me in challenging ways. Those of us who have worked with children for any length of time can all relate stories about when we were or weren’t ‘on the ball’. I can certainly offer up times when, for one reason or another, I have affected the children and their play. There have been some very challenging times.
I worked with a group of children who were, in retrospect, not ready for the idea of playing their own way. I felt it at the time, and now with a little distance I still feel it, but their experiences of adults imposing on their play had had a lot to do with how those children interacted with each other, and with me, and with other adults in their play space. We, the adults, weren’t all thinking in a playwork way about the children around us. The children deserved a better deal. Adults had damaged, and were continuing to damage, their play.
I have observed similar situations take place in other ways, in other children’s play settings. The common denominator is the way that the adults treated the children.
Sometimes those adults thought that their intentions were noble enough: they said that children should act this way, or that way, behave like this or like that, because those were the rules that had been set down for everybody. Those adults didn’t see that ‘the rules’ didn’t fit the reality, didn’t suit the children, didn’t work because the children couldn’t or wouldn’t be squeezed into them like plasticine into tubes.
Sometimes the adults insisted that they knew best when it came to children’s play. Sure, adults can often have a keen eye (too keen sometimes) on matters of ‘health and safety’, but ‘health and safety’ is just a by-word now, a phrase, used when people refuse to think in a common sense way for themselves. Blame it on health and safety. No-one wants a child to get hurt, of course, but better a broken bone than a broken spirit and all that.
Sometimes the adults insisted that their idea of interacting was the best way for the children. Regular readers of this blog (and others I talk with) will know of my dislike for the phrase ‘play nicely’. Sometimes, sure, children get a kick out of playing with others, but if little Johnny does not want to share his stuff with little Susie then ‘playing nicely’ is not top of his agenda. He’s acting (I’m not writing ‘behaving’ there deliberately) in a way that he needs to act right there and then. If Susie tells him to ‘just fuck off’, tomorrow, then frankly, Johnny had it coming.
Sometimes adults have frowned upon children for the things they do and say. ‘You can’t say that. That’s not nice. That’s not polite.’ Then they’ve laughed and joked when the last child has left the place, telling each other: ‘Shit, little Johnny was a fucking nightmare today, wasn’t he?’
Here’s the thing, adults: you can be part of the problem. The other day, I was part of the problem. The children I was with played with ‘stuff’ (to the uninitiated, I’m talking about cardboard boxes, tubes, old buckets, scraps of material, etc.), and generally just got on with things. I was in the room, but all seemed well. Then one of the children needed the toilet and didn’t get there in time. OK, no problem, but the moment of play had shifted into the child’s anxiety over clothes. I became increasingly frustrated with the way he showed his anxiety and this, in turn, affected him. I tell you this because it happens: adults can get frustrated. My affect on the children had shifted from positive to something more negative.
Playworkers affect children. Teachers affect children. Nursery nurses affect children. Parents affect children. Let’s face it, we all affect children. How much better could it be for children if we adults just took a step back sometimes, considered how we affect the children around us, and did something about it? When I realised how I had affected that child this week, our frustrations at one another growing steadily, I took a mental step back. I changed my course. I said ‘fine’. The child came up with a solution to his anxiety, I accepted it, and we moved on. Play happened again.
I tell you all of this because we are all potential affectors of children. We affect their behaviours. I wonder what you insist upon — with the children around you — that makes those children act in the ways that they do sometimes. Do you realise how much you affect those children?