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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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.

Young Children as Collaborators with Parents and Teachers

I have been reviewing manuscripts written for or with my now-adult daughter from when she was a young child. One is called “Tell Don’t Yell.” In total transparency, twenty years ago, I often expressed myself through yelling when I was frustrated.

People who know me now are amazed that I was ever less than peaceful. Back then, I was less than peaceful, both inside and out. I had to learn how to find the peace I now teach others.

My motivation for change was my beloved 8-year-old daughter’s response to my behavior. “Mom,” she said one day, “Tell don’t yell. When you yell, I feel like you don’t love me anymore.”

Tears spring forth from that memory, which sparked a journey into becoming a more loving parent, a more compassionate teacher and a better person.

“Tell Don’t Yell” was a one of the manuscripts we wrote together. Our collaboration built a bridge between us that my yelling was knocking down. Effective communication between adults and children is something we all desire. Yet, old patterns and habits can be a roadblock.

I can still vividly recall when I attempted to hurry her morning cat-play, so that she’d get to the school bus stop on time. I was sprouting an abundance of words that began to grow louder as my efforts became less effective.

At the exact moment before my amygdala took over and my intellect lost control, my daughter took the cat off her shoulders.

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She stood and looked up at me, her earnest little face illuminated. She spoke aloud her young child wisdom, as if reading a page in our collaboration:

My mother yells too much.

She yells in the kitchen.

She yells in the hall.

I’d be on my way to school right now

If her words weren’t blocking the door.

With that I laughed, hugged my brilliant co-writer and reached for a pen to capture her exact words.

Her words stayed with me until, with consistent motivation and innovation, I learned to tell, not yell.

We all thrive on loving connections. If there is a disconnect between ourselves and our children, we are very capable of initiating a reconnection. While we often feel uncomfortable, ashamed or embarrassed at momentarily “losing it,” we need to forgive ourselves for not being the perfect parents or teachers we’d like to be and move forward. One thing I know to be true: we will always be given another opportunity for more generative communication with our children.

Guidelines for Collaboration:

  • Writing a story or book together is one form of adult/child collaboration.
  • Making up songs together are another way to collaborate. (See June 4, 2013 blog on Spontaneous Song)
  • Improvisation or puppet shows can be extremely fun activities for both adults and children. Here is one activity you can add to your collection of tools.

 Let’s Trade Places (You Can Be Me, I Can Be You)

  • Have the child play the part of the parent or teacher; the adult plays the part of the child.
  • Use a current topic/issue: such as “getting ready for school” for parents; “clean-up time” for teachers.
  • Set the scene: you can have the children determine where it takes place, what has just happened or is about to happen.
  • Allow the children as much responsibility as possible for setting the storyline. With very shy children, they may need prompting. Sometimes, having an extroverted child in a “director’s” role will move the improvisation along. You can also ask for audience suggestions as to “What Happens Next?”
  • In expressing yourselves from each other’s point of view, you come to a better understanding. I’ve had a very accurate mirror of my behavior reflected by children who pretend to be Elyse. Humor is so important when initiating change, reducing conflict or finding creative solutions.

In our collaborative story, Arianna was my teacher. I had daily homework: practicing telling, not yelling. Loving her as I do, I was a very willing and successful student.

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In the years following our collaboration, I’ve dusted that retro chalk dust off my hands and learned to be an effective communicator, especially when frustrated.

Peace in our homes and classrooms begins with us.

Peace,

Elyse

Next Blog: Playing with puppets and children. You’ll receive detailed activities I used in teaching an adult class, Puppetry and Its 500 Hats, at a local university.

YOUNG CHILDREN AS MENTORS

 

“But I don’t knooooow the marriage dance,” the 3 year old lamented, interrupting the ”wedding” in the dramatic play area. “Now I can’t get married!”

The wedding party stood frozen. What would happen next?  I continued to observe as the “groom” stepped forward saying, “It’s easy. I’ll teach you.” He gently took her hand.

She began to follow his lead and soon they were co-creating their dance. The others smiled and went back to work, laying down a paper aisle for the reunited couple.

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Children often naturally mentor each other. We, their teachers and parents, can support and encourage them by noticing.

I witnessed a more-hesitant child focusing on a very skilled classmate. The girl was designing a process for making a stuffy. When the shyer child was asked if he’d like to make one, he shook his head vigorously.

“But I don’t know how,” he qualified. I waited to see if he’d ask or if someone would volunteer to help him. He glanced at the others who were all attending to their own work, but seemed unable to ask for help.

I paused, and then asked the girl, “When you’re finished, would you please teach your friend what you’ve discovered? He’d like to make a stuffy, too.”

She agreed, and with great patience and generosity, mentored him. He was then able to join her in celebration, joyfully parading their stuffies around the room, singing with glee.

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As I was writing this blog, two alumni appeared at the cafe. I asked the siblings if they had ever taught each other. They each nodded. The older brother then demonstrated by placing a green clown nose over his own.  He just happened to be carrying it in his pocket after finishing a week of clowning camp!  I love synchronicity!

From that same deep pocket, he withdrew a pack of cards. He then mentored his sister through clowning tricks he had just mastered.

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GUIDELINES FOR TEACHERS:

  • NOTICING:
    • “Catch them doing good” is what I first heard it called, while I was teaching language through the arts in a public elementary school.
    • Call gentle attention to a behavior we value through oral appreciation of what we have observed.

“I noticed that when your friend felt sad because she didn’t know the dance you taught her. Now she, too, knows how.”

  • INCLUSION:
    • Partnering children of different practical or social skill levels encourages scaffolding and greater participation. It contributes to an inclusive environment.
    • When a child asks for help, encourage a child who has mastered that skill to be a teacher. “You were able to figure that out. Can you now teach your friend what you’ve learned?”

As teachers and parents we have ongoing daily opportunities to create a more-peaceful and integrated classroom, family and community.

Towards a More Peaceful Classroom: Expressing Feelings Through the Creative Arts

When the children are expressing strong feelings towards each other, I have them sit down together and work it out with words or puppets. They take turns speaking of their feelings and listening to each other. If there is a conflict to resolve they each make suggestions until both are satisfied with the creative solution.

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Inspired by my recent trip to Bali for a Creative Arts conference, I thought to use other than puppetry or oral language to express feelings and resolve conflict. At the conference Professor Joe Moreno had us using musical instruments as a way of introducing ourselves to each other. In the final session he played back our musical self-expression and suggested moving to the recorded sound.

I could imagine applying something similar for my work with the children. I could see this tool extended into expression of feelings as well as a means of resolving conflict.

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To facilitate musical expression, as another means for developing a more peaceful classroom, you’ll need percussion instruments and a recorder (optional).

Choose an instrument

Have the child choose a simple percussion instrument. This works best if the conflict hasn’t accelerated to the point where what is needed is time apart to calm down. What might seem like distraction is a more appropriate way to express strong feelings. This is also beneficial for those who suppress their feelings or find them inaccessible.

Teacher/Parent facilitation:

Sample prompts: “Are you feeling sad right now because your friend will not play with you? Which instrument will show how you feel?”

“Are you feeling very angry because someone drew on your art work? Can you show me how you feel with one of the instruments?”

If they cannot choose, you can encourage them to try out different ones until they find the just the right instrument; or you can ask, “Does it feel like this (tapping a triangle or striking a drum)?”

Taking turns

  • Each child takes a turn showing how they feel (record it if possible).
  • If musical expression is recorded, play it back and suggest that they express even more of their big, or small, feelings by moving to the sound of their own music.

Musical Dialogue

  • Have the children move back and forth in a musical dialogue. One ‘speaking,’ one listening, and then trading places, the listener becoming the speaker, the speaker the listener.
  • Encourage movement as they express themselves musically

Observers (optional)

  • If you would like a small group of the other children to become a circle of observers, see if they can guess what the two participants are saying to each other through sound and movement.

Having observers, even when intended as peer support, is tricky. You know your children best and whether this might work for them.  Often those who are still feeling strongly may be self-conscious and not want others around.

Dear Readers, As I am just beginning to explore how effective this is with young children, I’d appreciate your feedback from those who use this tool.

Terima Kasih (Thank you)

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Triangle (TRIA)
Bongos (BDR)
Sounds of Nature Instrument Set (NATSNDS)
Rhythm Club™ – set of 4 drums (CLUB)
25-Player Rhythm Set (SUPER25)
Califone® Cassette Player/Recorder (CALCAS)