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 child’s 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