I’ve been going through the notes from the Sarah Lawrence Conference and found a little stack of papers from our morning of observations at their Early Childhood Centre. Apart from the rather old-fashioned nature of these observations, in which adults sat silently on the fringes with notepads and pens as if on some sort of safari, it was strangely liberating to watch children who were not my responsibility. The four and five year olds moved through the two rooms, crossing in and out of play situations and selecting materials from their surroundings as necessary.
Child 1: “Pretend this is a wire. Pretend this is a huge wire.”
Child 2: “But it isn’t. It’s for this. It keeps it strong.”
Child 1: “Well, let’s drive. This is a car.”
Child 2: “Okay, but we need a steering wheel.”
Setha Low, the New York urban anthropologist who studies public spaces, said that we should be able to do whatever we like in our play areas. However, Low notes, “people are willing to compromise those rights in order to be there together.” The same could be said of play itself, which may seem chaotic or anarchic at first, but is conducted according to complex and evolving ordering systems. These systems, the rules of the game, have to be constantly renegotiated, and it was this process that interested me most during the observations. The children undertook these negotiations because the ultimate goal of playing together was worth the effort required – even if it took longer than the play itself.
Child 3: “Can I tell you something? This is a vacuum cleaner. To suck up dirt.”
Child 4: “It’s actually not.”
It struck me forcibly how many play cues were offered for each one that was accepted. Rapid-fire exchanges dominated, pushing the play on and changing it, as one child’s imagination conjured up the storm that struck another child’s spaceship, who then avoided a crash by changing the storm to a “twister with no lightening in it” and then turning his spaceship to rock. Children offered ideas for play which were rejected or taken up, adapted through the complex negotiations that determined what compromises each child was willing to make in order for play to go on.
On the way out we passed another child, who had previously pushed another into starting a game of chess. His partner had said “but you’ll win, you always win” even as he acquiesced. The partner left soon after when a former play friend called him back, and the first boy watched him leave. Then, unsure of what to do, he parroted the conversation that took the boy away, repeating the phrases of others in a loud and squawking tone. When no one responded to this warped play cue, he just kept going, his voice getting louder and louder as he became angry, echoing that play conversation that did not open to include him.
It seemed then that the basis of social participation then was flexibility, the capacity to keep sending out offers until one had the desired response. For the boy with a limited range of entry behaviours, losing a play partner was nothing short of a catastrophe.