Pretending creates a powerful context for learning—for my kindergartners and for me as their teacher. On this day, three girls planned to play in our pretending area. They told me that Lauren was going to be the sister, Teresa was going to be the mom, and Wisdom was going to be the baby. "She's always the baby," Lauren informed me, as an aside, and off they went.
Awhile later, from that corner of the room, I heard Lauren's voice cry out, "Oh my goodness, I just had another baby! Now I have three babies!" Apparently someone else had joined the original three and roles had shifted, with Lauren back in her favorite role, that of the mother.
Nearby in the block area, which was clear of buildings on this particular day, two girls, Danica and Bella, were using the carpeted area to play a math game. Suddenly two of the "babies" came crawling out of the pretending area and into the block area. The game players registered their protest at being interrupted and Lauren quickly retrieved her escaped charges, admonishing them, "The neighbors don't like noisy babies."
It wasn't long before Lauren could be heard commenting from the pretending area to whomever would listen, "Three babies is a lot of work. I'm going to need some help!" (Seriously, what mother has not said the same thing at some point?!) Danica overheard this and stood up from her game. "I could be the babysitter," she offered.
The next thing I realized, the previously escaped babies, the "mother," Lauren, and Teresa, who seemed to have now become a baby, were in the block area again. Danica and Bella looked on. Lauren was complaining that the two babies, Wisdom and her friend, Janice, had taken the baby, Teresa's, bed. A couple of pieces of cloth from the pretending area were spread on the floor in the block area. Janice and Wisdom huddled against the block shelves next to the cloth "beds." Teresa self-righteously explained, "They are the naughty babies. I'm the good baby."
They seemed to be appealing for help so I asked, "So what do you do with naughty babies?"
"I put them in time out," replied Lauren.
"Yeah," added Teresa, "That's why Janice is crying." It appeared that it was not pretend crying, however.
Moved by her classmate's distress, Bella crossed the block area and began rubbing Janice's back. Janice continued to cry, perhaps enjoying the attention that came with it. Lauren and Teresa returned to the pretending area.
"Are you worried about her, Bella?" I asked. "She's crying because she's pretending. She got put in time out. Have you ever been put in time out by your mom and started to cry?" Bella could identify with this. "She's going to be ok. You don't need to worry about her." Bella left Janice who continued pretending she was in time out with her real tears.
What happened next I could not have predicted. At this moment, Danica, the "babysitter," sprang into action. "Oh, what's wrong, babies? Do you need a hug?" Janice immediately nodded and they embraced. "It's okay," Danica comforted, patting Janice's back.
Then, no longer crying, Janice sat back down beside Wisdom. "So what would you two like to do? the "babysitter" asked. "What would you like to play?" I couldn't hear their response but they gathered up the "stolen" bed cloths and returned to the pretending area, seemingly reconciled. They continued to play until it was time to clean up.
Recently, I have been trying to give children the space to navigate their own struggles. I've been thinking a lot about how children spend almost all of their time "supervised" by adults, and understandably, we are not comfortable watching their conflicts and hurts. But on the other hand, how will they learn to navigate life if they don't figure this stuff out? So, I'm trying to observe, trust, and not step in as quickly. And when I do, mostly ask questions.
One of my favorite quotes is from Marie Clay, "The one doing the work is the one doing the learning." She was referencing learning to read, but I've come to believe it applies to all learning, no matter the subject, no matter the age. In the past, I probably would have intervened. I might have suggested that it wasn't fair for Lauren to be the mom and everyone else be the babies. Or I might have told Wisdom and Janice that they weren't allowed to be naughty babies and if they wanted to play there they would need to change. But I would have been doing the work of resolving the conflict. I would have robbed them of the opportunity to learn to empathize, to ask for help, to see what happens when you are "naughty" (in low risk ways), and to emulate caring people they have known, things that are much more important to me than easing my discomfort.
And equally as important, I would not have learned that children are capable of much more than we sometimes believe. You have to make the space and give them the chance.
I teach kindergarten at an independent school in Hawaii. The joy of young, curious learners delights me. I'm passionate about my practice, always striving to meet the needs of the children and their families.