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Find a way for everyone to play

Find a way for everyone to play

Every year teacher and author Vivian Gussie Paley noticed a particular phenomenon would happen in her classroom; children would begin experimenting with excluding one another for seemingly arbitrary reasons. She decided to create a universal rule. You can’t say, “you can’t play”. She even wrote a book about it. At first glance this seems like a fair rule but is it really that simple? How do we encourage children to WANT to make others feel welcome.

Who can play and who can’t is one of the most challenging aspects of preschool life. As a teacher and mother my instinct is to root for inclusion but the lines can be blurry. Sometimes the exclusion is practical such as there is only room at the table for 4 people, or when the children in the block area have created a train track that takes up all the available floor space. Sometimes it feels arbitrary and unfair. Why can’t boys play in the dress up area? What exactly is the right number of children in the gravel pit, or using the mud kitchen, or on the play structure? If a child has spent most of the morning constructing a carefully planed railway track is it ok for another child to take some of the pieces to build his own version?


Inclusion and exclusion

Interacting peacefully together in large groups can be a challenge for most children. With so many different social needs to be met it is often loud and chaotic. Often children will find or create their own space to regroup alway from all the hustle and bustle.


How do we support inclusivity?

Peer exclusion is very common amongst preschoolers, a developmentally normal response to a variety of social problems that young children encounter. A younger child may not understand the game an older group are engaged in, or perhaps the newcomer wants to change the game to suit their own interests. Supported by adults who help guide and model the conversation, we can usually find some common ground, or the children decide it’s easier to just walk away. If this exclusion dynamic is ongoing, it will help to step back and observe the interactions of children in the group. Once the motive for exclusion is clear, it is important to help the children find a solution that balances the needs of both the excluder and the excluded.The appropriate response will depend upon the underlying reason for the exclusionary behavior. If that is not clear, it is important to ask the excluder in a non-punitive, non-judgmental way:“It seems like you’re not really wanting to play with ——— today. I am curious about what is making it hard to play together. ““If you can tell me about what’s going on, I can help you find a solution”


Be present, move closer, get down on their level

We can give them words to use:

Staying close by we are able to observe children who maybe unsure how to join others in play. Suggest they ask…Can I play with you?or tell…We are using all the trains right now, we will let you know when we are done.This is a fairy game, you can be a fairy with us. You can’t play if you keep breaking our tower.


We can create protected space for them.

Creating spaces where individual children or small groups can have the space and materials to themselves allows for deeper age appropriate play. Puzzles, Lego and loose parts are ideal for this. This area is only for 2 children. Do you want me to put your name on the waiting list.?


We can advocate for them:

Right now they want to swing by themselves, I can push you on this swing while you wait for a turn.He doesn’t want any help with the puzzle. You can do this one if you like.She can play here. This area is open to everyone, I can help you find a different space if you want to play by yourselves.If children are wanting to control who plays in one of the larger common areas, such as the mud kitchen, the dress up area or the bike path/swing area, they should be reminded that all our spaces are open to everyone. If necessary they should be encouraged to move to a more secluded area.”The bikes are open to everyone. Let’s see if we can find away to let everyone play.” You can use the playhouse in the bike yard as a space for 2 people but the play structure is for everyone to use.” I see you are using the big black spoon. If you want a different one you can ask someone to swap with you, or wait until they are done with it.



What is our goal?

While we don’t expect children to be best friends with every child in the classroom, we can encourage kind and respectful behavior. Hurtful words and actions should be addressed immediately. If we calmly and consistently remind children of this it will become our classroom culture, and the culture we bring with us out into the world.


Be kind whenever possible. It’s always possible.. - Dalai Lama

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