Controverisal Play and Topic in Early Childhood Education

As adults we have more knowledge and experience of the world than that of children, because of this we tend to view and analyze children’s play based upon our learned beliefs and values. However, this sometimes brings us to a crossroads when children begin to show interest in something that seems “wrong”, “dangerous”, or “against our beliefs”. What do we do? This blog will, explore topics of children’s play that make us feel uncomfortable and give suggestions on how we can take a step back to figure out why and how to support their learning and understanding.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Comfort Zones (Part 1): The Uncomfortable Self

Did you know that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable? Just like other feelings, it is a warning that you need to pay attention. ‘Uncomfortable’ tells you that you may need to stop what is happening to you or around you, because you are not ready to do something or there is something wrong.

However, uncomfortable is not always a bad thing. When you challenge it, it can turn into opportunities to have other wonderful feelings, such as, ‘Excitement,’ ‘Exhilaration,’ Pride,’ and ‘Accomplished.’ As well, ‘uncomfortable’ is an opportunity to learn about different opinions and beliefs that may challenge your own or make you rethink or stand stronger about what you thought or believed in the first place. It is also the result of succeeding at something that you were often too scared to try. It is the feeling you get when you attempt something that hurts or makes you feel uneasy over and over again because you know the reward will override that feeling in the long run: It gives you grit, determination, persistence, and builds resiliency!  

For example, can you remember when you started to learn the different opinions and beliefs about hunting? Did you learn why some people hunt (as a means to eat or for sport or both) or why some people choose to be vegetarians or vegans and do not support hunting at all? You may have been raised to think about it in a particular way, but eventually found out that there was more than one way of thinking about this subject. As a result, perhaps this helped you to respect others’ opinions because you understood their side or maybe you stood stronger in your own opinions because you didn’t.
Another example is when you got on a bicycle for the first time. Even though you felt scared that you would fall, you got on that bike because you wanted to learn to ride it. And you did fall, over and over again, yet you were so determined you kept getting back on until you could ride that bike.

Here’s the thing: ‘uncomfortable’ is different for everyone, which can be a challenge when you are working with other people, especially children, who have comfort zones of their own. And when our comfort zones do not match those of children, it is the adults who get to choose what will happen. This is a problem when children want and need to play out topics or skills that make us uncomfortable, such as playing a game where they are pretending to kill or they are using words like ‘killing’ or ‘murder’ in their play. Or when they start to climb a tree and they go higher than you thought they would. My question is, what do you do when you feel uncomfortable with what the children are playing or discussing? Do you stop it or do you let it keep going in spite of your discomfort?

If you tend to stop such play, or you second guess why you let such play occur, I hope I can ease your discomfort with some helpful tips, ideas and thoughts that make me feel better about what children are playing in spite of my feelings, opinions and/or beliefs:  
1.      All interest topics and play come from the children. Before I initiated a Gun Play project and a Wrestling project with children, I observed the children engaging in this type of play. I decided I needed to help them explore the topic and skills associated with the play. This is my reason why I let them play or learn about the topic: Through their play, they are showing me they already know about the topic or are practicing the skill. So now I want to be a part of their learning so they can gain a broader view of the topic and be that ‘someone’ who can teach them how to practice the skills safely.

2.      I observe the children playing the uncomfortable topic. I document what they say and what they are doing. I try to figure out why they are playing the topic, what they know about the topic and what they don’t know. If they are playing with a controversial toy or object that represents something uncomfortable (i.e. Nun chucks, guns), I ask myself, how are they using it? Do they know what the object is, what it does, what it is used for? If it is a controversial topic, such as war or death, do they grasp the concept? How are they playing or talking about the topic? Do they already have an opinion about the topic? Do they know other ideas or opinions about the topic or belief? If it is a physical skill, I try to figure out what skill they are trying to master and whether I need to help them learn it safely or if they will be able to learn it on their own.  

3.      After I observe, I try to understand what it is about the topic or play that makes me feel uncomfortable? Is it that I’m scared that the children will end up believing that guns are toys or that they do not know the real life consequences of guns? That they may not know reality from fantasy? Is it because I believe in peace and they are playing about war? Is it that children may get hurt practicing a skill? Is it that I don’t think they are able to see hazards that may cause them harm?

4.      Instead of saying no, I ask myself, how can we? What can I do to make me feel better about this topic or play without stopping it? Do I need to put safety or respect guidelines in place? Do I need to bring in someone like a police officer to come talk about gun safety? Do I need to research the different sides to a belief or opinion? Do I need to put out mats so that they will have a soft place to land? Or do I need to show them how to assess their environment for hazards?

5.      I reflect on and write down all the benefits and learning opportunities that could happen through exploring the interest. The benefits always outweigh the discomfort. You just have to look for them.

6.      I am present, observing, listening and learning from what children are doing. Be a resource to help them find ways to research or understand the topic as well as the opinions of others. Answer questions honestly but in a way that is appropriate for their age or maturity. Provide ways to enhance the skills they are practicing or to be the guide they need to learn the skill safely. By being involved in the play, you feel like you have a little more control about how they will learn, which gives you a sense of comfort.

7.      I try to remember what I believe about children (Image of child). I believe children are capable, competent, smart, and resilient, and that it is their Right to express themselves any way they choose and seek information of all kinds. I believe in trusting children to guide their own learning.
This is how I make myself more comfortable with the play and topics that arise. And what I have found is that most of the time, the assumptions I had about what children were playing was not what they were playing at all, that sometimes they were still trying to understand a concept and were not ready to put feelings behind the subject. For example, the more I observed children taking physical risks the more I saw how skilled and capable they were at it.  In one situation, as I watched a group of children play a game where they were “shooting and killing zombies”, I noticed that the play was more about protecting and saving each other and facing their fears rather than wanting to be aggressive. I also remember the first time I allowed children to climb a tree at the park. I was nervous as I watched but the more I observed, I saw how competent they were at swinging, hanging, and figuring out how to navigate the tree. And I noticed the children who were still learning the basic climbing skills stayed on the lower branches because they only went as high as they felt comfortable. This showed me that children were capable of understanding how to listen to that uncomfortable feeling they had inside, the feeling that said ‘this is high enough’. But, as they practiced that feeling slowly disappeared, and they were able to climb higher and more skillfully and became confident in their climbing abilities. But this only happened because I said yes in spite of my discomfort.
Instead of making judgments about children’s play, take time to ask yourself:
    • Do you observe them at play?
    • Do you talk to them about what they like and why?
    • Do you take their actions and opinions seriously?
    • Do you ban toys for them without paying much attention to how they actually play with them? And what they are trying to learn about them?
    • Do you stop play that could increase their physical abilities and development?
    • Do you give children the chance to prove they can be competent?
    • Do you trust children?
    • Do you support the childs right to play?

    When you observe children and ask yourself these questions, you might just find that the assumptions you had about children’s play were not what you thought in the first place or that the children were capable of the physical risk they were attempting. But what you are really doing by observing and supporting their play is fostering overall health and lifelong development.

    Stay Tuned for: Comfort Zones (Part 2): The Uncomfortable Parent/Guardian



    Wednesday, March 28, 2018

    Let the Children Play (Part 2): It’s a Need

    As a parent or caregiver of young children, you understand how important it is for children to learn through play. But why do they need to play out topics that seem unsuitable for their age or controversial to our beliefs, such as the concepts of death, pollution, or sexuality? Aren’t they too young to learn about these topics?

    The one thing all people have in common is that we have a motivation to learn. In fact, we are born with it. This is because we need to know how to learn about the world in order to survive. And children learn through their play which makes it a need (i.e. a necessity), no matter what the content or focus of their play.

    Many of you have seen children playing in a way that does not seem age appropriate, and you may think that you need to stop them from learning more about that subject or understanding that the topic even exists (e.g. reality vs. fantasy).  Perhaps you feel they will become upset as they learn more about the topic, or will have nightmares, or will act out in ways that are inappropriate (i.e. if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen). However, if a child is playing about a sensitive topic, I’m sorry to tell you but this shows that they already know something about it! And their need to learn will override any rules or policies we put forward to stop them from learning about something they want to know about.

    The Need to understand the unknown
    Why is it good to let children play through an interest? One reason is so we can observe their play to see what they know and what they still need to learn about the topic. Through this observation, we usually find out that the play is not what we think it is! Depending on the child’s age, they usually don’t grasp the whole concept of the topic. For example, I was driving home from a party where I was given a plant for a gift. My three year old son, in a tired bout of rage, said, “I want to kill your plant!” Although I felt unsettled about the statement, I calmly said, “Well, that would make me feel really sad because I really like my plant.” I repeated these same statements two more times until he became silent. After about two minutes he asked, “What does killing mean?” I calmly said, “When you kill something it doesn’t come back. So if you killed my plant, I would not have it anymore and that would make me feel sad.” And the conversation ended. He knew that ‘killing’ was a strong word but he had not grasped what it meant. The fact that he did not know what it meant made me feel better about the subject and also gave me some time to figure out how I would answer the next questions about killing and death that was sure to come.
    In reflecting on this scenario, I realize that adults tend to jump to the conclusion that children shouldn’t learn or play about certain topics because we look at children’s play from an adult point of view. For example, when children engage in wrestling or play fighting, some adults see it as real fighting and assume that someone will get hurt. On the contrary, children see it as play and will stop before someone gets hurt.
    Adults know about the world already, and if there is a topic we don’t know about, we are able to research it on the internet, discuss unfamiliar topics with others (because there is no one to stop us), and talk to friends about topics that make us feel uncomfortable so they can help us deal with that feeling or solve an issue. Children do not think like we do. For young children, they are still trying to figure out their own thoughts and feelings. They may not be able to discuss a topic, like gun play, or ask about an object like a gun because they are still trying to understand what it is, what it does, or how it works. In my experience, this is the first step before they can discuss a subject. Only after interacting with the object or topic can they start to question why (e.g.  Why do humans use or need guns?). This is like being asked about how a dessert recipe turned out before you have even made the dessert. So instead of discussing, children play out topics of interest to better understand them, and once they have done this, then they start to inquire about the topic and ask questions about it.
    Once children understand the “why” behind a topic, they start to put feelings towards the subject to build their own beliefs. Then they will go back to playing with that answer to better understand that until the next ‘why’ comes. For example, I am curious how many children started to build walls in their play after Donald Trump started the “build the wall” campaign. While observing a student at their child care centre, I watched children build a wall out of milk crates in their outside playground. They told me, “This side is the US and this side is Canada”.  I wondered, did they understand why they were building a wall between two countries? Or were they just doing it because they saw it on the news or heard adults talking about it? In another scenario, a co-worker told me that she saw children building pretend bombs and pretending they would explode. I said, “Look what just happened”. It was after the Boston Marathon Bombing: did the children understand that people got hurt and bombs were dangerous? If they did know, then maybe the play was to figure out what happened and how it happened. Or, maybe the children just wanted to understand how something so small could cause such a big explosion. This is the same when it comes to gun play, especially after the recent school shootings and other gun tragedies in the news. This play is hard for adults to watch but it is how children understand these tragedies or learn how they would deal with it if it happened to them. To adults, children’s play is not always what it seems and that is why we need to observe and wait before rushing to judgement. 

    The Need for ‘risky’ play
    Another way children learn (specifically, learn to survive), is through developing physical skills and through ‘risky play’. You may feel that you are supportive of children developing new physical skills, but in order for them to learn a new physical skill, there is a risk that they might get hurt. In my experience, this is what makes most adults feel uncomfortable.  However, Ellen Sandseter’s (2009) research on the six categories of risky play is very helpful in understanding the need for children to take these risks and why. These six categories include: (1) playing with great heights, (2) high speed, (3) dangerous elements, (4) dangerous tools, (5) getting lost or disappearing, and (6) rough and tumble play (Sandseter, 2009). Although some of these categories do not include physical skills, they do come with the risk of physical injury, which makes us want to protect children from them. Yet their need to learn these risky skills will override what we let them do.  Even babies do this. As soon as babies can move, they innately start to test their abilities, even after getting hurt. They want to get faster and higher. My eldest son is proof of this. When he was 9 months, he climbed his first playground slide with me spotting him (this was also the day he started to walk). It was amazing. And as soon as both of my sons started to climb furniture and stairs, I let them learn how to fall (at small heights and onto soft surfaces) so they could learn how to fall safely and that there are consequences that come with climbing. Not an easy thing for a mom to watch but an important skill for all of us to learn! Letting children take risks though their play is the best way to help them foster all areas of development, but only if we trust them to try.  ‘Risk’ becomes ‘skill’ once a child has mastered it, so if you are not letting them climb, wrestle, toboggan or practice using tools, guess what they will do it when you are not looking? They will find a way to learn that skill.  So wouldn’t you feel better if they told you what they wanted to do so you could be their spotter or the resource they need to learn the skill safely? (I promise to discuss all these categories in greater depth in later blogs)

    Children’s fears and the Need to play
    The last reason children need to play out these topics or learn skills through risk is that it is a way for them to face their fears. By understanding what scares us or trying out new ‘risky’ skills, children find ways to problem solve how to deal with that feeling and /or how to handle the situation if it were to happen to them. An example of this is the game “Don’t touching the lava”. The children practice the physical skill of jumping from one item (such as a stump) to another without touching the ’lava’ (ground). By doing this, they are actually preparing to do it in more realistic situations in case they are facing a dangerous element that is threatening their safety (e.g. rocks in a river with a heavy current). That risk may seem scary to the child at first, but as soon as they feel confident enough to try, they are learning to face that fear until the risk becomes just a skill.  Recent research suggests that children who take physical risks have a lower chance of developing phobias, depression, and anxiety disorders (Sandseter, 2011; Brussoni et al., 2012). This may be due to the fact that children who are encouraged to take risks are constantly trying new things and consistently practicing how to cope and handle fear (i.e. practicing self-regulation).

    What can we do to meet their Needs?  

    Instead of stopping or banning play, please observe it first. Think to yourself, Why are they playing this? Is it out of curiosity and to understand the topic better, to learn a skill, and/or to get over a fear? When we trust children to follow their interests and needs, we become better parents, caregivers and teachers and the children more effective learners with some really great knowledge and skills.

    Stay Tuned for: Comfort Zones (Part 1): The Uncomfortable Self, what can I do…

    Monday, February 26, 2018

    Let the Children Play (Part 1): It's Their Right!


    I have done many workshops about play and when I ask the participants, “Why have you stopped, restricted, or banned children’s play?” they usually state one of the following: the children were going to get hurt, the behaviour was going to get out of control, the behaviour was disrupting the learning environment because it had escalated into loud and rough types of play; or the focus of the play promoted an inappropriate concept, seemed violent, and/or was aggressive. The participants who admitting feeling comfortable with more controversial play themes were still worried about the judgment of others, whether it was parents, coworkers or others in the community. They were worried that others would view the play, they were letting the children do, as wrong and/or they would tell a higher authority about it. Such as, CFS, their Directors, or their Coordinators.

    In truth, these are all valid reasons why caregivers want to stop play. I myself have stopped play for these same reasons. However, I have realized that it is not respectful to the children and their right to play.

    This right to play has been clearly defined by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since Canada is one of many countries that has signed the Convention, I feel that it is our duty as Early Childhood Educators, parents, and community members to help children maintain and fight for those rights. According to Article 13.1 in the Convention:


    By this definition, a child has the right to express themselves though play, and if it is a concept or topic that is a little controversial (e.g. gun play, death, marriage equality), it is important that we help children seek honest, unbiased information about the topic based on their age and understanding…even if it makes us uncomfortable. By doing so we will help them learn how to form their own opinions about what they believe. For example, is it okay to hunt animals? There are many sides to this topic and all should be explored. You may be surprised with what they think or how much they know about the topic. As an adult, you probably already have your opinion on this topic, but can you put that aside so children can learn to make their own?

    Not only is it a child’s right to play but also to seek information of all kinds. We should not conceal any topic or type of play if the child is interested. But what happens when we do? The child will try to understand about this topic through their play, but without us knowing. They will try to hide their interest, which will either make them really good at deceiving us and/or they will continue to figure it out with the feeling of guilt for doing so. They will also feel they will not be able to discuss the topic with you. Gun play is one example of such a topic.

    Before starting a ‘gun play project’ with a group of 5 and 6 year old children, I had seen a few children making guns out of Lego. When I asked them if they were making guns, they quickly said, “No, it’s a laser”. Even though I knew they were deceiving me, it closed the discussion because they were scared they were going to get in trouble.  This really bothered me that they did not feel comfortable talking to me about their interest, and I knew that they would learn more about guns by other means. This was when I realized that I needed to change so they could use me as a resource for their learning. I needed to follow the child’s interest even if the topic was something we commonly restrict like gun play. By doing so we could research their interest together and really look at all sides of the topic. What do they want to know? What do they believe? What do others believe? And why?  I could help them become even better researchers and help them figure out what they wanted to learn.


    “Canada became a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the rights of the child on May 28, 1990 and it was ratified on December 13, 1991.”

    Stay tuned for: Let the Children Play (Part 2): It’s a Need

    Saturday, February 17, 2018

    Controversial Play: Play that Children want and need but are not trusted to do

    As adults we have more knowledge and experience of the world than that of children, because of this we tend to view and analyze children’s play based upon our learned beliefs and values. However, this sometimes brings us to a crossroads when children begin to show interest in something that seems “wrong”, “dangerous”, or “against our beliefs”. What do we do? Do we ignore the children’s interest? Do we ban the children’s interest? Or do we let them explore it? This blog will explore topics of children’s play that is commonly restricted or banned for children and how us as adults can take a step back to observe why children are showing interest in that topic so we can better support their learning and understanding. Play in itself is the way children express themselves and I believe in the child’s right to play. Even if it makes us feel uncomfortable. Let's watch how children become smart, independent, resilient, and competent just by trusting them to play the topics they want to explore.