You can't say: 'You can't play'


What can parents do when preschoolers and kindergartners start excluding? By Ed Finkel

Illustrations by Jana Christy

When we moved to Evanston last April, we landed on a quiet lane with nearly 30 kids on the block. Our older daughter, who was just turning 3, reveled in the opportunity to bolt outside after dinner, on weekends and whenever else the neighbor children were out. They would chase up and down the front lawns, draw pictures with chalk on the sidewalk and disappear into people’s backyards to swing and slide.

By late summer and early fall, though, other aspects of the group dynamic began to emerge: Certain of the children, particularly those a year or two older, began to tell her, “You can’t play with us.” Some of them explained to us that she did not seem to understand their role-playing games based on movies such as “Harry Potter.”

Other parents on the block expressed concerns and a desire to work together on it. They had seen this kind of behavior before, many times. In fact, some of the kids excluding our daughter had been the victims of similar treatment as recently as six months earlier.

In September, during Cherry Preschool’s parent orientation, the school’s leaders talked about a mantra they planned to drum home to their new students: “You can’t say, ‘You can’t play.’” Based on an identically titled 1992 book by Chicago educator Vivian Paley, the philosophy holds that children simply may not exclude one another from playtime activities.

“In the context of a classroom community, since the children don’t have any choice of being there, all children should have the opportunity to participate,” explains Laurie Levy, Cherry’s director. “We did debate about whether that would work, and whether we could simply get children to accept this concept.”

There are occasional setbacks: Levy laughingly describes a “very legalistic” boy who explained, “I didn’t mean you can’t play; I mean you can’t play right here.” For the most part, though, “They just take it as a matter of fact, that we’re all equal here in the classroom.”

Educators, child psychologists and other child development experts mostly agree this is the philosophy that preschool and kindergarten teachers should adopt. But, they also say, the issue becomes trickier in a neighborhood.

What parents can do So what can a parent do? While all agree that children should be able to choose who gets invited to their homes, it’s in public but disorganized settings such as a block party that parents face awkward situations that have the potential to net great educational rewards.

Parents have to realize this will take time and be a very labor-intensive process, child development experts say. They also need to accept they can’t over-orchestrate children’s play or hope to create a mini-Utopia on their block. But they can move relationships in a friendlier direction, and the place to start is by opening a dialogue with other parents.

“It’s much more complicated on a neighborhood level because the adults get involved in a personal way,” says Anne Parry, director of the Chicago Office of Violence Prevention. “We encourage the parents to do some prevention work and build relationships with each other beyond just watching the kids, but talking about early childhood development. The more we articulate our understandings, the better equipped we will be when problems arise.”

“Parents have got to be committed enough to this idea to not set the tone autocratically: You must. But rather, approach it Socratically, and keep it up as a continuing source of communal dialogue,” says Paley, a retired University of Chicago Lab School kindergarten teacher. “I don’t think this should be used as a club to become holier-than-thou, not in a classroom and not in the neighborhood. We set the tone by example and hope that it catches on, if not this year, then next year.”

Kathryn Ebert, an Evanston mother of three, says persistence is key. “It doesn’t always work, but if you keep sending the message” kids eventually will understand, she says. And be upfront, if cordial, with other parents: “The more honest you can be about it, the better. We get it on the table.”

Deborah Zapalik, education manager at Chicago’s Ounce of Prevention Fund, agrees, “You need to pull in all the parents, and then pull all the kids together and talk about it,” she says. “You talk about it with everybody there, so that it becomes a learning situation about social skills and how to treat each other.”

“When [my son] was 3, especially, I intervened,” says Christina Biggs, an Evanston mother of two. “The older he got, the more I told him to work it out.” She has a rule that if her older son does not want to include everyone in outdoor play, he has to stay inside. When he has been the one excluded, though, she prefers talking to other children rather than their parents. “I, personally, hate confronting other parents. It’s so uncomfortable,” she says. “I usually offer an alternative that includes me—would you like to go to the park—rather than confront another parent about their child.”

“The ideal is always that the parents can talk to each other. But it’s hard to talk about, ‘Your kid is being mean to my kid,’” says Karen Maurer, director of the Hyde Park-based preschool Parent Cooperative for Early Learning. “The adults have to take the role of educator and interpreter, peacemaker sometimes, to help the children learn how to do that.”

Teachable moments Parry likens that process to peeling an onion. “It’s the opportunity to teach empathy and compassion—for adults not to respond by yelling at the kids and saying, ‘You’re mean,’ but saying, ‘How to do you think so-and-so feels?’ When you look at a child saying to another child, ‘You can’t play,’ let’s pull up a layer: ‘Why would you say that?’ Maybe that child hurt the other child. Maybe there’s power and control issues. There’s a number of conclusions, other than, ‘You’re a mean little child.’”

Karin Ruetzel, a child psychologist in Evanston, says parents should help children be creative in figuring out how to include everyone in their games.

“Sometimes what kids will do is exclude somebody who can’t go down the slide as fast as they can, or doesn’t run as fast, or doesn’t do something exactly the way the leaders of the group want to do,” she says. “It becomes a way of saying, ‘Can everybody find a way to play this game?’ That’s where kids need the adult input sometimes; the kids aren’t going to be able to figure that out for themselves.”

Ebert agrees parents need to help kids be creative. If girls are playing princesses, for example, and a boy wants to play, suggest that they incorporate a prince or knight into the game. As kids get older, Biggs notes, they start to do this on their own. She tells her 5-year-old: “It’s not enough to say, ‘Yes, you can play.’ You have to make an effort to include.”

Parents need to take responsibility for calming the situation and assuaging hurt feelings. “Now is the time when parents have a great influence helping shape their children,” Zapalik says. “Just saying, ‘Oh, it’s just kids playing,’ is kind of saying it’s OK. Children need to be called on it and told how it’s disrespectful and it’s hurtful.”

By the same token, Zapalik adds, children should not be forced to play with one another. She would tell a child, “Maybe you don’t want to play with that child, and that’s OK. But if you choose not to, you need to find a respectful way to say that. And it’s not OK to get other children to agree to exclude that child.”

Parry agrees teaching children to be more respectful with one another is part of the onion. “Respect how they might feel, and teach them better behavior in the process,” she says. “And maybe teach them some language that says, ‘I would rather not play with you today, but maybe we can play tomorrow.’”

Working it out When Biggs’ son wants to play with one or two particular children, but not others, she says, “That’s fine. I’ll call their mom or dad and set something up. But if we go into a group, then it’s group play.”

That’s an especially appropriate approach with children of different genders or age ranges who might have perfectly natural reasons for wanting time with a certain set of other children in the group, says Gillian McNamee, director of teacher education at the Erikson Institute on Child Development in Chicago.

“I usually try to work out with, if there are any other adults, ‘How can we get you some [separate] play time?’” she says. “You might have to say, ‘It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen today.’”

Parents will probably have to be more involved to promote play among children of different ages, Parry says. “We have to take the time and energy to organize activities that can be successful for multi-age children,” she says. “It’s very labor-intensive to do that. To organize an activity for success between a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, one of the characteristics is, it’s going to be short and sweet. You don’t leave them alone unfacilitated. And you don’t create something that is way beyond the limits of the younger one or very boring to the older one.”

In other cases, it’s best for parents to sit back and let kids work it out for themselves, says Fran Stott, Erikson’s vice president and dean of academic programs.

“Kids need to experience a little exclusion now and then because life is not easy, and kids get more and more exclusive as they get older,” Stott says. “Parents should try to gain some perspective. You want to see both sides of the issue for your child. You do want to be empathetic to the problems the kid may be having. If you have a shy child, you work a little bit harder to have more play dates and help that child negotiate. On the other hand, don’t make a federal case where it need not be.”

“We’re not looking for everyone to live happily ever after,” says McNamee. “There’s a lot of rich territory that children have to learn to navigate. I don’t think the job of the teacher or the parent is to protect them and make sure no bad feeling ever evolves. It’s a challenge for them. It might seem uncomfortable at times, but it’s one of the healthiest tensions in life.”

But Levy sees potential unhealthiness in such tensions, expressing concerns about self-esteem problems for those excluded and other types of problems for the rest.

“Some children who are more routinely excluded just give up. They just expect not to be accepted,” she says. “Children who are the leaders, the controllers of the play, it’s a lot of pressure for them, too. And the other kids worry about being excluded, so they tend to be willing to hurt someone else to make sure they’re not the ones left out. I don’t think it’s good for anybody.”

Biggs says she and her husband, Rob, disagree on that point. “He thinks that, even at the ages of 3, 4 and 5, that this is a problem that kids are going to face,” she says, “to have a few experiences where you are the one left out, that can be a positive tool for learning.”

Watch closely Zapalik counsels parents to watch closely, and they’ll be able to tell whether the dialogue between children is playing out in a constructive manner.

“I’m always observing. You get a gut feeling when [a tense exchange] is hurtful, and you get a gut feeling when it’s a lesson learned,” she says. “If you’re really tuned into your kid, you can tell when it’s just downright nasty, and you can tell when it’s a learning opportunity. If [the excluded child] is taking a chance and talking back to this other child, maybe you let that play out.”

While parents should advocate for their child up to a point, Ebert says, at a certain juncture it can defuse the situation to distract the excluded child or suggest that they play with someone else. She remembers one instance where she forced the issue and her younger daughter was included in the role-playing game but told that her job was to lie down on the deck and wait for the others—where she remained 20 minutes later. “Don’t expect 100 percent compliance,” Ebert says with a chuckle.

Ultimately, parents need to make sure that all children feel empowered, Paley concludes. “There’s a certain power in saying, ‘I’m deciding [to exclude],’” she says. “There is another great source of power that says, ‘Let him play. He’s our friend.’ Both apparently give a big kick to us, even at a young age. Most of us have some faith that the power source that comes from being nice and kind to people is really a stronger source of power. So if we set up our environment to acknowledge those acts and set the example ourselves, in most situations, children will gladly follow. It makes them feel better.”


Ed Finkel is a freelance writer and an instructor at Northwestern University in Evanston where he also lives. He is the father of two children, ages 4 and 1.



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