I love, love, love my work as a preschool teacher. I love creating art opportunities for children, so that they can express themselves and experiment while practicing those all-important fine motor skills. I get excited when I find new songs and activities to share and engage the group with. I adore, too, the quiet moments or busy neighborhood walks when I watch the children just being themselves, either immersed in scrutiny at an activity or book or running and shrieking through the autumn leaves and always stopping to marvel at the neighbors "No Poop" sign on her grass.
But what gives my heart the most meaningful joy is seeing each child learning and growing to be with other children in a positive way. The sweet interactions when children come to trust each other and lose themselves with each other, playing side-by-side. This trust allows them to immerse themselves deeper into their play. When this sense of trust and fair play are present, things like taking turns with toys--and even taking turns with ideas for how the play should go--become more easy for everyone. Much of this trust is a direct product of my presence. Sitting near the children, listening to tones of voices and observing the action, it becomes easier as time goes by for me to know when to sit back and see if the children can work through their disagreements and when to gently begin to narrate. "Wow, I see two people who both want to use this toy. Let me hold it while we figure out a plan." or "It looks like Susie's getting mad, Sally. I see you are trying to grab her block. Susie, are you using the block? Okay, tell, Sally 'I'm using this block right now. You can have it when I'm done.' Well done. Sally, I see that Susie is using that block. You can let go now, because she'll give it to you when she's finished. Let's go over here and find another block for your work for now."
It seems like a lot of work, and you know what? It is. Nonetheless, presence and observation means cutting off trouble at the pass. Part of the beauty of my work is to know each child and where their abilities lie.Some children have a rough time figuring out how to play with other children because they simply don't know how to do it gracefully, and this is one area that makes other children wary of that first child. See here: it's very common for a child to watch another one playing. Once the first child decides that what the second child is doing is interesting, they may go over and take the toy, instead of asking "can I play too?" And of course, conflict emerges. This is why I sit close and listen, so that when I see Susie approaching Sally, I'm able to recollect that Susie isn't in the habit of asking to play, so I can smile at Susie, bring her close and say "I see you are watching Sally. You look very interested in how she's using that toy." Then I can find another one for her to play with near Sally, or suggest to Susie "This is a good time to ask Sally if you can play too." Staying present for the entire exchange, Susie and Sally both feel this experience is grounded and contained because they do need help, and there was a loving adult present to guide them through the moment.
While we read a lot about parent/child interactions, one idea I haven't seen discussed is this: children learn from these social experiences--and how they feel about other children-- not specifically because of my words, necessarily, but because of what/ how they feel in their bodies during those disagreements and conflict. When their emotions might be flustered, but don't rise to anxiety or anger, these interactions--even ones around disputes--feel much safer. Thus, Sally learns that playing with Susie 'feels' okay and safe, because the situation wasn't allowed to go farther than a moment of conflict before problem-solving and guidance began.
Likewise, sad incidences and accidents can trouble one child's relationship with another. Last Friday, Kiddo came home with a cut on his ear and a note stating that there had been an accident with a shovel. I gently asked Kiddo about it over dinner "Oh, can you remember what happened with the shovels?" Kiddo said his friend (we'll call him Johnny) had "hurt my ear with the shovel, and then he hurt Carlos." Kiddo ate another bite and then declared "I don't want to play with Johnny." While it was tempting to remind Kiddo that Johnny had been his friend since nearly the first day of preschool--I have loads of notes sent home on how Johnny and Kiddo played together-- I understood. Johnny is a rougher kid, and a very sweet one too. It was, likely, an accident that had occurred. But Kiddo's physical experience of Johnny had changed, because Johnny had hurt him, and so his response of "I don't want to play" seemed reasonable to me.
There's something for us as adults to remember, too: we ourselves have our own strong opinions about who we want to spend our own time with. Rarely does this involve the sort of physicality that our children experience; it's more subtle than that. But most adults shun other adults or situations that make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable inside their bodies. For many of us, it could be a family member or a co-worker. I used to ride the bus with a woman who had worked at the same non-profit as myself years earlier. Unless I could help it, I always sat away from her because once she got started talking, she was out of control. (We'd had to censure her at the job for the same reason.) She had no social boundaries, was obsessed-beyond-proportion about Y2K and couldn't read any social cues like trying to change the subject or my curt answers and opening a book. Finally, a Walkman was my only line of defense.
In my mind, this woman was much like many of our little kids are, with relatively the same skill set. And I wonder, why should we expect our children to be more tolerant of unpredictable or unpleasant peers than we ourselves are? We all want our kids to like each other, but the fact of the matter is, children have different play styles. Some children will play well together, others are more wary of each other and shouldn't be expected to go outside of their comfort zone to accommodate a child who might be less socially appropriate, any more than it would have been expected of me to engage in detailed discussions of disaster plans regarding Y2K.
Our kids need us to be reasonable, to be present and coach them, and to be allowed to decide what feels safe for themselves and what they need more help navigating--and we need to be in tune with what we should feel okay allowing them to avoid. This is actually a life-saving instinct they are developing and responding to, one that we want them to have a strong sense of as they grow into older children and adults. Think of all the times people you know have made good, critical decisions based on how they felt in their bodies at the moment. I don't correct Kiddo's "I don't want to play with Johnny" because I want to honor that feeling he's got. I know his teachers will rewrite that script for him, in continuing to provide support and coaching for Johnny, and in a few weeks, this will blow over. I also want my son to respond to that feeling when he's in high school and considering getting into a car with someone who doesn't feel safe, be it a friend who's under the influence or a popular kid with a hidden penchant for mischief or destructive behavior. Honoring how he's feeling now strengthens his ability to trust himself in other such situations later in life.
So this is what I feel proudest of in my work with children. Helping to create those trusting relationships between children. I'm not doing all the work here--the children do their part by being willing to respect my guidance and allowing me to help, which is work for them. And these moments feel beautiful, when the children move past their immediate emotion and trust me enough to allow themselves to be guided. It's a mutual positive regard for each other that makes it all work so well. It's my best work of all.