Entering Play: A Social Skill

“Can I play with you?” is often heard throughout our classrooms and school yards. This seemingly simple request can quickly become a lament when new children are stopped from joining the play in progress. While excluding is often a means of exerting power or defining friendships, it can also be sourced from a fear of the new person changing the play.

Entering play is a social skill that can be learned with our repeated facilitation.

  • Ask the child if they’d like some help
  • Observe the play in progress with the child
  • Inquire as to what the play is about. What characters are the children portraying?
  • Ask what would add to the play in progress? What else might be needed, whether it’s another character or a prop.
  • Stand by to see if they’ll need additional help.
  • Validate their efforts.

Three children were playing family. They were riding in a car they’d formed from a wooden bench.

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(Note the “blankets,” as San Francisco temperatures fell to freezing that week!)

“It’s not ok for you to fight,” said the child playing the mother. “You have to be kind. Mommy is going to sit down next to you,” the child told her “children.”

Another child was observing them from nearby. He loves animals and had been playing with a frog puppet until the dramatic play caught his attention. While he had been perfectly content to be animating his puppet, I wondered if he might want to join in. When I asked him, he nodded agreement, but remained still and continued watching.

I began to softly sing a song to him to the tune of “This Old Man.”

Connect your idea

To the play

Then everyone will say hurray!

Friends are friends through thick and thin,

Play together we all win!

It was a tune that a classroom teacher and I had collaborated on as a way of encouraging children to enter play with successful outcomes.

“You could ask them if they might need a pet frog in the family,” I suggested, as a way to add his unique play to theirs. “See if they can use that idea. I’ll watch.”

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“No, thank you,” was the reply from “mom.” For the older children, I offer or brainstorm other suggestions. With the youngest, if a coaching suggestion has been turned down, I often step in and help facilitate.

“He’d like to play with you, who can he be in the family?” The game initiator suggested that he be the daddy.

“Would you like to be the daddy?” I asked. He thought for a moment, then told me, “No, I have a daddy at home.” And with that he turned and walked away to continue playing happily with the frog puppet. I forget at times just how real their play can be. And while we may try to scaffold, ultimately it is the child who decides.

As written in the blog of Dec 4, 2013, one child’s idea for making a “sewing machine” continues to attract many of his peers.

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They each have a ball of yarn and invent ways of connecting and weaving and pulling on the yarn to create movement.

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Not all the children have learned to enter play in a way that keeps the original idea moving forward. I observed a child picking up scissors and moving toward the string-structure of his peers with a mischievous gleam in his eye.

He had been about to connect to the play by cutting the string that the other children had joyfully placed. In this instance, I intervened by coaching him with several open-ended questions:

  • What do you think will happen if you cut down the string?
  • How will the children feel?
  • Did you want the children to be upset, or did you just want to join in their fun?
  • What could you do instead?

He decided to exchange the scissors for a ball of yarn and was welcomed into the activity.

Learning how to enter play successfully is a life skill. Once inside the play, we can offer our ideas with a better chance of creating collaborative change.

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