Teaching Peace with Elyse: Welcoming Friends into Our Play!

The five-year-old missed his collaborator who was absent that day. "I wish he was here," the boy lamented. They’d been working side by side on their art collaboration for over two weeks.

"Who wants to help me with my project?" he announced, figuring out a way to manage his emotions. Several friends came over to help. Realizing that they might take over the project, he stepped onto the nearby bench and proclaimed: "First, before we begin, let me tell you the rules." And then he did just that, setting clear limits while maintaining a welcoming tone of voice. "Please be very careful because we’ve been working on this a very long time."

The boy had addressed a common issue when play is in progress and new friends want to join. There is concern that those entering play may change it in ways that the originators are not happy with. In the case of art-making, what might be changed could, quite literally, be the project itself. Rather than help build and enhance the construction, the newcomers might cause it to fall apart.

"If you are not helping, please do not touch—just look." The leadership of this five-year-old was respected by his classmates. They did as he asked. Setting boundaries can help create a sense of emotional safety. The originators can trust that the integrity of the project or game will continue. With trust comes openness and the capacity to invite others into play.

I was reminded of the commonality of this theme in both the playground and classroom when the lead teacher of our three-year-olds asked for a puppet show. She wanted us to develop a theme on welcoming other friends into ongoing play. There had been specific behaviors noticed in the classroom. It was challenging for all when two children were playing and a third friend attempted to join in. It’s often easier to continue playing one-on-one even when the person wishing to join is also a friend. In entering play, the responsibility is on the newcomer. But, the puppet show we were asked to design put the responsibility for welcoming on the originators of the play.

In a discussion with my colleague, Connie, we discovered attitude as an element of welcoming. Friendliness, openness and flexibility provide an inviting, inclusive environment. It’s taking us longer to discover the actual skills of welcoming others. We needed to explore this, working at our separate schools.

My inquiry first took the form of puppet play. I hoped to develop compassion for those wanting to join in. As children’s dramatic play is very like improvisation, I set up an activity where there would be several improvisations on welcoming our friends. 

Joining a small group of three-year-olds with my large turtle puppet, my intention was twofold: developing compassion and learning how the children welcomed others. As there were several children who all wanted to use the puppets, I was excited to see what would happen.

Turtle introduced the improvisation by telling his tale of always arriving at school later than his friends. They were already playing and sometimes he didn’t know how to join them. 

I wondered if Turtle’s introduction would create compassion for him. If so, would it change the way the children’s puppets interacted with him when he arrived? Would the puppeteers welcome Turtle? How would they do this? I was eager to observe the children to see what actions they would take.

After the introduction, I froze, stopped moving Turtle, and the group of children playing together became the focus. The children decided on the game and then went about acting just as they do in dramatic play. After they were thoroughly engaged, I had Turtle enter the picture.

In this week’s improvisations, the children’s puppets were very kind to Turtle. Some stopped their play and asked him to join in. A few offered suggestions for who he could be in their dramatic play. "You can be the dad…the bunny…the bad guy."

They often ended the improvisation being embraced by Turtle.

In these improvisations, I didn’t create any push-back from Turtle. He was happy to be invited to participate. In real life, it doesn’t always work out so easily. The child wanting to play will often refuse the roles offered. "I don’t want to be the dad. I want to be the dog," is a common response, in some variation. Negotiating usually continues until they have worked out playing together; the conflict either escalates or the child walks away.

As I was working with three-year-olds, I wanted to anchor kindness as an element for welcoming. I wanted their kindness to be received. I had Turtle act happy to be welcomed. I also wanted to accept unconditionally their ideas for inviting in their friends. Having their wise choices encouraged is empowering.

At another time, I’ll add a little bit of resistance and see what the children can come up with.

During the next week, our classroom teachers will explore what skills they or the children utilize to welcome friends. The puppet show we create with additional skills for welcoming will be the topic of the next blog.

Suggestions for Teachers:

You might want to join our inquiry by gathering information for a puppet show of your own.

  • In both the schoolyard and classroom, notice what the children do to invite others into their play.
  • Create a web with other teachers on the skills of welcoming.

I’d love to hear and share what you’ve discovered.

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