Two children are having an argument over something and they just can’t let it go or get over it: what do you do? That is, you’re an adult watching on, a playworker perhaps, or you’re of a playwork-minded persuasion — even if you don’t know it — and you see all this bottled-up aggression unfold in front of you: When do you step in? What are you thinking? Whose side are you on? Are you on any side? Do you step in at all?
My playground noticings for this week have formed around some children’s antagonisms, their righteous anger, and their focused interpretations on fairness — for the benefits of the self — resulting in cyclical arrangements of revenge. This all sounds fairly heavy-duty and negative, but thinking about interactions of this kind, in and around play, and a few days on from them, I file this post under the draft working title of ‘the human tendency to push others’ buttons and have others push our own’. That is, adult or child alike, none of us are, or ever will be, perfect and we will irritate, and be irritated by, others.
A playworker, who understands that they can just as equally push children’s buttons as vice versa, also understands that a reasoned process should take place when thinking on children’s various interactions with one another. I’m not an advocate of the school of thinking that promotes such direct verbal mantras as ‘Now, was that kind?’, ‘Share your toys’, ‘Say sorry’, ‘Don’t be mean’, and so on. That’s not to say that a little human kindness, sharing, sincerity and love wouldn’t go a long way in this world; it is to say though that forcing things on children may well only turn them into people of automatic responses that lack thought and true emotion.
Children will have arguments, just as baby birds will fall from trees, and just as you’re almost guaranteed to find yourself sharing a train carriage with someone with an annoying ringtone, a propensity to eat crisps loudly, or someone blessed with the most pathetically irritating cough in the whole wide world! The trick, or the sleight of mind, for the playworker — or playwork-minded person — when around the arguing children, is in trying to know what best to do and when.
Last week I watched on as a group of footballers cheated outrageously to get the oldest of them out of the game. She, the oldest, was not best pleased when the ones who were ‘already through’ to the next round conspired against her, but to her credit she tried every pressure, persuasion and conceit to get herself reinstated before finally taking on her erstwhile opponent and winning through again in a replay. The boy she beat stomped off in a flurry of self-defeat (because, in truth, he’d got it into his head that he couldn’t beat her fair and square before the replay anyway). The girl then took it on herself, after celebrating, to go and have it out with another child who was the chief cheat.
At what point do you step in when the two are literally at each other’s throats? What are you thinking? Whose side are you on? Are you on any side? Do you step in at all? Eventually, for the boy’s protection, I stepped in (because I think she was only really holding him off and could easily have done him some proper damage if she’d tried). Was I right to even step in at all? ‘Play nicely’ (whatever that means) didn’t even enter my head (nor would it ever do), nor did ‘respect each other’ or ‘is this kind?’ These are education system mantras, which I understand to have some safeguarding intent but also, perhaps, some eye on crowd control. I stepped in when I judged it necessary but I don’t know if my judgement was correct.
I’m not advocating children go all out to hurt each other and adults just watch on and do nothing. I’m thinking around the relative benefits of adults not controlling the every emotion that children are expected to display. What was in my head at the time of the intervention was one of protection for the boy (the girl could easily look after herself, I think, and would probably have held her own against the whole group — all in it against her together — if she’d had to): I had no agenda of the children making peace with one another. What transpired was odd: I was aware of the heightened state of agitation that the boy was in after the older girl had left the scene of her own accord, and I sat down on the grass bank with him just so he could ‘come down’; a few of the other footballers came over and sat with us. One of them, another younger girl, shouted at me from just a few feet away, trying to tell me what had happened. She was also highly agitated. There’s no point in trying to be rational with people who are so ‘up’ emotionally, though I said quietly to the shouting girl, ‘Hey, I’m just here, this far away,’ but she didn’t hear me . . .
The oddness was in how the children came over, sat down calmly enough and tried to explain away the group’s actions (their cheating, as perceived by the aggrieved-against, and as observed by me): I hadn’t asked them to come over, and it struck me that they might have felt a need to justify actions when no justification had been asked for. Is this symptomatic of a social system in which children are often told how to behave?
This same week, another group of children were running around chasing after another boy and I observed it all flow around the playground and around me. As I observed, I felt something beginning to bubble up: I could see the boy was being ganged up on, even though the group appeared to be in ‘play mode’ — maliciously, softly, perhaps. I asked the boy, in passing, if he was annoyed because I felt he was. He said he was. Now, we need to know the children around us and I could sense that this individual was past the point of his own ability to deal with the situation. I intervened. I asked the gang to come listen to the fact that the boy was at this point. They didn’t listen. I tried to come at it again by a change in surroundings. They didn’t listen. It hit me that I was doing it wrong: it looked like I was trying to impose my adult views on the children, of how I expected them to be, or that’s how I felt it. I realised that this was a gripe between the aggrieved boy and the gang leader (who, it turned out, was also aggrieved): so I took these two to another room, reducing the stimulus, where they could tell each other what they felt.
This was, again, not a case of ‘respect each other’, ‘play nicely’, or ‘is this kind?’ This was a means of opening a dialogue, and whatever was said was whatever was said. I said nothing. I knelt down in the doorway and feigned disinterest. The boys took it in turns to resolve things for themselves. I shrugged when they’d stopped talking. They went. I got lucky, but I also came out with a few more thoughts on conflict, interventions and interactions.
I’m not always calm inside when children push my buttons. This happens, because we’re humans, and humans will have a tendency to do this to one another sometimes. It doesn’t happen very often, but life is not always sweet and rosy on the playground: it would be boring if it were. No matter how old or experienced we get at being around these unpredictable creatures that are the children we work with, there are occasions when buttons will be pressed: it is an on-going process of learning about the self in the ways that we deal with these moments. It should also be remembered that we will annoy the hell out of some children sometimes too. This week, I was wandering the playground when I saw two children at the sand pit: the girl was sat in a big hole and the boy nearby. He suddenly shouted at me: ‘Hey, Joe [he calls me this], go away. We need some sand privacy.’ I knew I’d bugged him just by my presence, and he knew I was observing. I tried some banter but it fell flat on its face. I moved away.
We need to be careful in our observations, but they are key not only to understanding individuals at play (and how we might be in all of that: present or absent) but also in further thoughts on how the adult world at large impacts on children. I see children on the playground sometimes engaged in cycles of revenge, never seeming to reach a point of karmic fulfilment, as it were, returning and returning in always attempting to have the ‘last word’ by trying to trip someone up, playing at throwing paint over them, a little shove here or there, and so on: I wonder at the unfulfilled needs wrapped up in all of this, where adults have previously imposed the ‘this is how to feel and be’ full stop to the argument of the day — children keep pushing and pushing buttons because they haven’t been allowed to work out for themselves the point of ‘this is enough; I have my balance; I am avenged.’
Arguments will happen and buttons will be pressed because we interact in a human environment: it’s how we deal with this that is important. If we’re an adult who’s bugging the children, or being bugged by the children, if/when should we walk away?; if we’re observing arguments or aggressions of cycles of revenge, if/when should we step in? Maybe my interventions this week worked well; or maybe, when it comes to emotion comprehension and regulation, I’m also part of the adult problem for these children.