No Fair: What’s Fair and Unfair to Preschoolers

NO FAIR!! What teacher or parent has not heard that lament from children? I’ve been exploring the concept of what is fair and what is not fair according to preschoolers. Not fair can mean many things, including someone not what they wanted, being excluded from something or something undesirable occurring.

In the world of art making, we teachers and parents have the opportunity to explore what feels fair to children. In the process, we get a glimpse into their unique worlds. Once inside, we can gather information for helping the children solve conflict or working together more joyfully.

I asked a group of 3 and 4 year olds what “fair” meant to them. “What is fair?” I asked. After a long pause, one 4 year old said, “It’s not happy, it’s not sad, it’s fair.” He then wrote his words, trying to grasp and express the abstract concept.

He grouped fairness with feelings. I thought about that and concurred that when something was fair we could feel it inside our bodies. It is kinesthetic, a sensation of well-being that accompanies our sense of fairness. While adults may not as easily access the sensations, children more-readily can. And unfairness is often felt intensely by children.

“What is ‘not fair?'” I inquired of the same boy.

Previously he had shown interest in a “No Parking” sign. When asked what a “No Fair” sign would look like, he thought for a moment, then sounded out and wrote “Fair,” encircled it and drew a line through it.Image

When another teacher demonstrated “unfair” with objects, pretending to take all the markers, the boy used his sign to show “No Fair!!”

I’ve been using the coveted sticky jewels as a way of stretching the idea that ONLY equal is fair. Cutting the strips in a variety of ways (different amounts of jewels, different sizes, same or mixed colors, as well as different shapes) I ask the children to take a specific number of strips for their project. This amount can be arbitrary or based on the amount of gems and number of children present. I then tell the children, “The amount of jewels on each strip are not equal, take those strips that you really want.”

I then ask, “Are you happy with what you have? Is it fair? Does it have to be equal; exactly the same? What if you are happy with less than other children have? Is that fair?”

I acknowledge all their responses.Image

I found that with those directions they didn’t fight or accuse each other of having more. Each chose what he or she wanted and seemed to be satisfied. If they wanted more than the designated amount of strips, I’d ask what their plans were.

One 5 year old needed just two more jewels to form the outer circle of her flower. It seemed “fair” to me to give permission for two more. While everyone at her table looked up, I took their silence as agreement.

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Something else I tried was to have the group decide on what was fair. When that day’s allotment of “two strips of jewels no matter what the size or amount” was not heeded by one of the children, a roar went up.

“She has much more than two strips,” came the cry of injustice. Looking at what they pointed out, I could see their point.Image

When I asked the group what would make it fair, they decided that everyone else should get two more strips. I agreed and the children were again content. But, a few minutes later the girl with an abundance of jewels on her project asked if she could have just one more. “It’s not for my folder,” she said earnestly, “I need just one heart for another project I’m doing with my friend. I have a jewel heart inside my sticker heart and need just one more for the other sticker heart.”

I turned the decision over to the group asking if they thought that would be fair, since it was for her friend. “Does everyone feel OK with giving her just one more heart shaped gem?”

“That’s OK with me,” one girl answered.

“Doesn’t bother me,” said a 5 year old boy.

One by one the children voiced their approval of one more jewel… until another voice was heard, “Well, it’s not OK with me!” Before she could express why she felt this way, another child pointed out that this girl didn’t have any jewels.

“Oh, you don’t have any. Did you want some?” I asked. “Yes, I do,” she answered, and a friend spontaneously brought over the box of sticky jewels.

“Can I have the heart jewel now,” asked the child who needed just one more.

“You can,” was the reply.

“Sometimes, when we get what we need, we feel more generous,” I commented.

Guidelines:

When there are special supplies that are in demand, we can offer them in different sizes, shapes and amounts, asking the children to take what they really want. Some will say none, some will chose according to size or color or shape, and others will choose by the amount they will receive.

While it’s developmentally appropriate for young children to see “fair” as always equal, as teachers and parents we can help stretch their concept of fair.

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Intrinsic Motivation, Resourcefulness and Open-Ended Materials

‘”Loose parts,'” as mentioned in my blog of May 3, 2013, describes a theory first proposed by Simon Nicholson regarding open-ended materials. These materials suggest no fixed direction other than what is imagined by the children themselves. Nicholson, and others who followed him, proposed that these materials empower our creativity.

Focus and concentration are enhanced by combining loose parts with intrinsic motivation, that comes from within the child.

Over a period of several weeks, I observed one five year old’s interest in fabric. She began by covering her feet in cloth squares and wrapping them with colored masking tape. Image

After several sessions of “shoe” making, she chose cardboard from the recycled materials and placed her shoe-covered foot on top. Voila! They became ice skates.Image

She slid around the room on her ice skates with great pleasure. When she returned for the next session, she chose a large piece of cardboard and began decorating it. Instead of fabric, she cut up strips of available paper and again wrapped her feet.Image

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Having a variety of open-ended materials available allowed her to continue pursuing her passionate ideas. This time she created a snowboard.Image

Her confidence and satisfaction with her projects grew with the challenges she gave herself.Image

An article on intrinsic motivation by the National Association of School Psychologists addresses some of the characteristics that develop when children are self-motivated.

  • Persistence: The ability to stay with the task. A highly-motivated child will stay involved for a long period of time. I’ve observed young children work steadily for 1.5 hours and put their project on a saving shelf for additional work at a later time. They learn persistence when they are successful at a challenging task.
  • Confidence: A developing ability to problem solve is the basis for motivation at this stage of development. Having the self-confidence to know that one can solve a problem motivates the learner to accept other new and challenging situations, which in turn leads to greater learning.
  • Independence: The decreased amount of dependency on adults is another indicator of self- motivation. Children with strong intrinsic motivation do not need an adult constantly watching and helping with activities. Since independence is an important aspect of quality learning, this decreased dependence on adults will greatly enhance children’s ability to succeed in school.
  • Positive Emotion: As written in the article, “The last indicator of motivational level is emotion. Children who are clearly motivated will have a positive display of emotion. They are satisfied with their work and show more enjoyment in the activity.”

Concentration and focus are greatly enhanced when children are self-motivated. Providing a variety of open-ended materials for creative expression expands intrinsic motivation. For children to discover and explore their interests and passions at an early age informs their course of self-study and choices for a lifetime.