by Kim Atkinson
The bridge is long, elaborately built and uses every available block in the preschool. Despite its unorthodox appearance it is surprisingly stable and withstands the activity of the four-year-olds who cross it. The trolls stand on top of the bridge looking ferocious, arms akimbo, feet planted firmly apart. The billy goats crawl across on all fours, making goat noises asking to go to the green grass field on the other side. The trolls grimace menacingly and swing their arms.
In a small space between the bridge and the bookshelf James is hunched down, his grinning face almost obscured by a block he’s placed at eye level. “I’m a goat!” he says happily, “and this is my goat shield” pointing to the block. “See how many dints there are in it? That’s how many arrows hit it.”
The next day the bridge has been reconstructed and the trolls and the goats are again trip-trapping across it. James is in the adjacent kitchen area setting out dishes and food. “It’s a Shetland pony restaurant. Anyone want a hot dog or pancakes?” The goats and trolls all take a moment to come over and order food.
These are ordinary moments in the lives of children. Dramas like this are played out every day wherever children gather. We adults view dramatic play as cute and we marvel at the imaginations at work. But should we be looking more deeply?
As I watch this small vignette and others like it I see a world of complex thinking, expressions of how children make sense of their world, how they are practicing their thoughts. They are playing out themes that resonate for us all. There are lost children who are alone in the woods, kittens looking for mommies, bad guys to be fought, and superheroes with the power to protect everyone. Themes of good and evil, fear and safety, making and keeping friends are among the topics explored. Interwoven into these themes are the real life experiences of children. A new sibling, a troubled friendship or a movie watched are revisited in play, explored further, pondered, questioned.
The following week the blocks have been made into a bedroom for a cat and her two owners. Blankets are arranged to make a comfy bed. Suddenly lots of cats want to be in the bedroom, much to the dismay of the original players. Many cats are meowing at the door, knocking down the blocks and crowding the blanket. “OK,” shouts the original cat, “listen to me! I’m going to make a house for you over there.” She makes a tiny space with blocks. “Here you go, all you cats go here.” The cats move to the new space and sit forlornly, knowing they have been relegated to an inferior home. The rest of the morning is spent with one group trying protect the original cat bedroom, and the other group trying to get in. It is a complex dance of competing strategies played out with nuances—verbal, non verbal and meowed. There is no conclusion and no hard feelings, just a sense of a drama well played.
Haven’t we all been the cats who want into the nice bedroom or the cat who is trying to protect a space? Don’t we all want to talk the other cats into our way of thinking? The level of mediation and problem solving, the sophistication of the language at work here are of the highest form. The tasks of untangling the complexities of social relations cannot be practiced any other way. Nothing we adults could dream up could rival the learning that happened in that play.
Children share a landscape of understanding about the conventions of dramatic play. There are unspoken rules, or “good manners” such as respecting a goat shield. The stories are fluid, and the terms are generous. “OK, you can be Spiderman, but you’re really Spiderboy.”
There is unquestioning acceptance of new twists and plots, and knowledge that one’s own plot will be equally accepted. Suggested modifications are not an insult, just necessary to keep the story moving. “I’ll be the captain and you be the guy who has the shovel and we chase the monster.” “OK, but I’m gonna be the Batman shovel guy and we’re gonna chase him into a trap.”
Vivian Gussin Paley, writer, kindergarten teacher and a keen observer of children notes, “The children are not surprised. Nothing surprises or confuses them that takes place during play or story time. They expect to understand. Play is their language and story is their second language.”
It is we adults who don’t always understand. It is we who may miss the richness of the plot, the literary lore that is developing. It is we who have forgotten our own fantasy play and the strength of our belief in it.
Terrible things happen in the dramas of children, things we wouldn’t dream of including in a story: babies are put in ovens, people explode or get chopped or squished. The litany of torturous death is varied and impressive. While we adults are startled by the violence, the children are not. They understand that when it comes from other children it is pretend. When it comes from us, it might be real. Children who easily devise machines that mangle the enemy are unable to listen to a song I sing about the big shark eating the fish. I represent the real world, even when I am pretending.
Dramatic play isn’t neat and tidy. Passions run high, blocks swing dangerously and huge messes ensue. When the monster comes what else is there to do but run away screaming? Sometimes karate kicks are the only solution. But before I run screaming, I am stopping and looking carefully at what is going on. And once I really listen, I always find something that surprises me. What appears chaotic, has an order and a purpose. There is a plot, there is dialogue, there are characters, there is a shared sense of purpose, and shared narratives. And most of all there are children investigating how the world works, and practicing how to be in that world. Mommies are taking care of the baby dragons, the sharks are swimming to a safe place, and all are giving voice to their thinking.
Knowing how to hold a pencil is considered “school readiness.” I would argue that knowing the “goat shield” is to be respected is more important. And further, someone who sees that a situation requires protection and constructs a goat shield as the perfect solution is even more ready.
All great drama needs ample time to develop, to be repeated over and over until every twist is explored. All complex thinking needs long uninterrupted blocks of time to follow all the strands. And there is a whole world of stories to tell. Children create drama wherever they are: in grocery line-ups, with their plate of beans, while they walk in a mall. It is up to us to make sure those are not the only opportunities.
And remember the goat shield, you might need it.
Kim Atkinson is the mother of two boys and an Early Childhood Educator at Lansdowne Co-op Preschool.