I have really been enjoying my podcast conversations with Emily Plank, author of Discovering the Culture of Childhood. Because her book is the NJC Read Along Book this year, we’ve had the chance to have several in-depth discussions about the observations she writes about.
I wasn’t surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed talking with Emily, but I was surprised by some of the feedback I got about our conversation in Episode 5, specifically about friendships in early childhood. Listeners mentioned that they had several light-bulb moments as Emily flipped their perspectives of childhood friendships, so I wanted to address that topic here on the blog as well.
For many adults, the social lives of children can be quite mysterious. The same child can become instant friends with a group of random child she just met this morning at the park, but can also insist on excluding her own sibling or classmate from a play situation that same afternoon.
According to Emily Plank, “Children don’t draw from past shared experiences to define friendship; rather, they create their friendships as they engage in shared experiences in the present moment.” (pg 38)
“In the moment.”
As children play they are creating and navigating meaningful social structures. It’s not always easy to enter a new play situation, as those involved in creating that shared meaningful experience are often very protective of preserving it. This is where we run into many of our challenging situations as adults. We see children arguing or feeling excluded, and it hits a very charged, hot-button for many of us.
How we try to help.
Emily references William Corsaro’s term, “access strategies” when discussing how children go about entering a social play situation and notes that these strategies “don’t always look like the most effective strategies for entering play.” Particularly when children are observing others play (a necessary task before entering a play situation), adults are often eager to swoop in “help”.
“Without appreciating that this period of observing and circling the play of other children is, in fact, children’s attempts to maximize their chances for success, adults believe observant children need help to enter play. What’s more, these “helpful suggestions” from adults are often a guaranteed failure for children’s entry attempts…..As insiders in the culture of childhood, children know they need information from those who are actively playing in order to demonstrate their own value and contribution to an ongoing play script. They know scripts are hard to develop and that new children often unintentionally destroy a script already in progress. Like arriving at a theater halfway through the movie, you must rely on clues from the unfolding scenes to figure out what is going on. Standing up in the theater and asking for help from those who have been there the whole time won’t get you very far.”
In the podcast, Emily shares a wonderful illustration of how she helped a child gain the clues he needed to successfully enter play, rather than destroy the existing script as he had been prone to do. “George and the Poison Meat-Eaters” is one of my favorite examples of engaging with children to scaffold them in their play.
Unfortunately, as adults we often take the shortcut of simply telling kids they *have to* let other kids play.
And enjoy it.
As Emily writes (on pg 45), “But our field has fallen into a trap of expecting children to realize some kind of nonreality in which everyone will be friends with everyone, no one will be left out, and everyone will always be polite. On the surface, this sounds like a good ideal to strive toward….But there’s a catch. Actual friendship is never this idealized fantasy. Friendship is complex, and healthy friendships are built on an element of exclusion.”
Exclusion doesn’t always come from a place of ill will. Often, particularly for young children, it is simply used to preserve a meaningful play situation and to protect a meaningful relationship experience.
To borrow from Emily’s example in the podcast, imagine you’re having a very personal and in-depth conversation with a dear, life-long friend at a coffee shop. Another acquaintance, whom you know from work, drops by your table, asking if she can join you. You let her know that you’re having a very important discussion and that another time would be better. But then, the coffee shop owner approaches, letting you know that you can’t say “no” if someone asks to sit with you. You smile an awkward smile, ask your work colleague to sit with you, and immediately, your intense, personal conversation shifts to superficial chit-chat.
In some ways, this is what we do when, with all good intentions, we tell children who are deeply engaged in play that they *must* allow another to play.
So what should we do instead?
Emily shares this example in her book, which begins with three boys building in the blocks, and a little girl, who attempts to enter the play by knocking over their structure. Arguing and aggression predictably follows. Teacher Meg coaches them this way (pg 49&50):
Meg: “So it sounds to me like you three were playing and Jean interrupted.”
Lucas: “Yes! She knocked over our fence!”
Meg: “I bet Jean was very curious about what you were doing.”
Jean: “I want to play, too!”
Meg: “I see. You want to play. It sounds like the boys are playing right now. I wonder if there is a spot for you to play, too?”
Romain: “No. She can’t play with us now.”
Meg: “Then you can tell Jean, ‘We are playing now, but maybe we can play together another time.'”
Romain: “Jean, we’re playing now, but maybe we can play together another time.”
Meg: [to Jean] “I will help you wait. What should we do while we wait?”
The boys continue with their construction.
Coaching in this way certainly requires more intentionality and support, but it also preserves a more authentic social structure and promotes real social skills.
Other Tips for Encouraging and Respecting Deep Friendships
Emily gives several suggestions, both in the podcast and in chapter 4 of her book, for promoting meaningful and authentic friendships in the early childhood years. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Instead of, “You can’t say you can’t play,” or “We’re all friends here,” try, “You don’t have to be friends, but you do have to be kind.”
- Give large chunks of time for play to continue uninterrupted, allowing play to go deeper and for children to take the necessary time for social navigation.
- Allow lots of physical space for big types of play. Not only does social interaction require more room for more participants, but young children often need lots of space for movement in order to create really deep play.
- Be an observer, and recognize that what we adults often see as “antisocial” are actually young efforts to protect or seek meaningful social experiences.
Catch up on past podcasts, and subscribe to future ones here. (I’ll be sharing my discussion with Emily on Chapters 3 and 4 by the end of the week!)
Send me your questions for Emily by using this contact form and typing “Read Along” in the subject field.
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