“What if I’m an ice queen, and you are my cat, but then I make you turn into ice with my wand.” Two preschool students are gesturing wildly with sticks as they play underneath a large fir tree. “Yeah,” adds the second child “but what if I have my own powers and if I point my wand at something and say ‘un-freeze’ then it is un-frozen.” The first child pauses, considers this, and nods. Then she exclaims “OK! Let’s GO!” and in a flash they are gone, running in the wild frenzy of children in the meadow.
Hearing the way four-year-olds pose alternate “what-if” realities is always amazing to me. They work together, trying out different scenarios, and alternating who controls the way their role playing will evolve. They are free to explore every possibility, expanding on ideas they like, and discarding ones that they don’t. This is how problem solving and imagination develop through play.
Sometimes as a teacher I can forget how much I have to learn from the children, and how well things can go when I step out of the role of instructor, and into the role of facilitating their dreams and creativity. Today, as I observed this imaginary “what-if” game, I was reminded of the importance of asking myself “what-if” a little more often. Saying no, and giving constant reminders, is one of the most challenging aspects of working with children. My least favorite moment is when I say something two or three times, and I look around and nobody is hearing me. Maybe because it’s loud. Maybe because there is something more exciting going on somewhere else. Maybe… deep breath…. because I am nagging them and they have tuned me out. When this happens, I need to ask myself “what-if”. What I made a change here? Maybe I need to let go of a rule that is already being ignored, or maybe I need to find a new way to communicate. Maybe I need to shift something in our routine to set the children up for success. Sometimes this means giving an extra 2 minute warning about what is about to happen. Or it might mean eliminating an unnecessary transition during the day. Sometimes it means I have to let go of my adult agenda, and see things from a child’s perspective.
I try my hardest to listen, to find ways to say YES. There was most definitely a time when a child might have come to me asking for glitter and tape, and I would have said “No, we aren’t using those today.” In my head I would have been thinking “What if it makes a mess? What if everyone sees the glitter and tape and they crowd the table and argue? What if nobody does the other project I prepared? What if this becomes more work for me somehow? What if doing this messes up my plan, and my schedule?” But I have learned how to put those negative what-ifs to bed. Because they aren’t about teaching. And they aren’t about the child. Those what ifs are about me. My point of view, and my problems. Today, I re-frame my thinking and make it about the child. I say to myself: What if I listen, and support this creativity? What if it helps them to make something wonderful? What if today could be their best day of school yet? and so instead of giving them no for an answer, I say “YES!” and together we go get the glitter and tape. And because they aren’t off limits, the children know they can use them when they feel they need them. So they don’t ask every day. And when they do ask, they have a good reason, and they end up making something they feel very proud of. So today I challenge all of the parents and teachers to be better grown ups, by following the lead of the children and asking ourselves, “What-if….”
When I started working with this group of children there was “no playing with sticks” rule already in place. Because “what if they poke each other? And what if someone loses an eye?” Well…. what if they don’t? Fingers are capable of poking people and eyes as well, and somehow they manage to control ten of those without too many problems. Don’t they at least deserve a chance to try? Because, you know, “what if”…. what if they come up with a new game? What if they need to dig a hole, or test the viscosity of some mud? What if they build a machine? What if they need a magic wand? What if we stopped having to say NO STICKS every five minutes, and took a deep breath and let them play? What if, when we yell “NO” we are interrupting a child as they are transforming into a character with a scepter, or a light saber, or a broom, or they are heading on an adventure with a fishing pole, or a walking stick? Maybe turning a stick into that pretend object will help their game evolve and to solve whatever problem has them stuck at the moment.
In our classroom I don’t give out a “No” unless I can explain the reasoning to the child in the same sentence. And if the child has a different idea, I ask myself “what if we give that a try?” What if we suspend our fears of what could go wrong, and we entertain new possibilities? What if we trust the children to do the right thing? What if we communicate our apprehension and see what they have to say? So I let the children know that grown ups were worried they might get hurt, and together we developed some ground rules for playing with sticks. So far, we have not had a single stick related injury all school year. Every child still has two eyeballs, fully intact. I think this is because the children value being trusted and included in the decision making process. They appreciate being listened to, and they listen in return.For the most part, children are careful with one another, and inherently kind, so nobody is actively trying to stab their friends.
If we had never changed our rule about sticks, and I had made them leave the chalk on the sidewalk, we would have missed a beautiful moment today. A moment where every single child in the class joined together in a pretend campfire. They looked for kindling, and firewood, and stoked pretend coals. One little boy painstakingly used the chalk to color the sticks on top of the pile orange and red and yellow, like flames. Another group hunted for long sticks to roast pretend hot dogs. The blue and white chalk became the marshmallows, roasting for s’mores. “What if we make one hundred s’mores…” I heard a small voice wonder. “Yeah,” added her friend “and then what if we look for shooting stars.” And then, at ten in the morning, under a sunny sky, that’s what we all did.