We have had many misty, muddy days in Vancouver this month, which you will see reflected in the pictures in this blog post. Children respond in a variety of ways to the rain. Sometimes rain leads to exuberant puddle-jumping! Other times the children hunker down and get into some serious mud play, or explore the forest floor and all of its mysteries.
It's so interesting to see how different children respond to the sensations of dirt, mud and rain, as well as the feelings they tend to generate. Sensations such as wet, sticky, gritty, slimy and feelings such disgust and excitement. Each person's nervous system is unique, and so their actual physical experience of the same sensory input is different. Over the course of the year many children become more flexible in the types of sensations they embrace in the forest. For example, some children when they first begin to explore outside cannot tolerate the feeling of dirt on their bare skin. With lots of time and a light-hearted approach from educators, that same child can learn to broaden her tolerance and increase the scope of her experience outdoors. We never pressure children to play in mud if they don't want to; there are always many options for play in the forest. We find that as children accumulate positive experiences in the outdoors, their interest in mud play and comfort in getting dirty naturally broadens. This opens up new possibilities for them as they embraces play and exploration ideas they wouldn't have before.
Last month an exciting rough-housing game called "Roughy-Toughy" emerged in our Wednesday afternoon group. It began with three children who aren't normally very rough and tumble players. They decided to invent a pushing game. The object of roughy-toughy is to push the other players down. Without prompting, these three children invented a number of safety rules to create a rough and tumble game they felt comfortable with. Rule 1: When you get pushed down, you have to take a break. Rule 2: No pushing in the back, face, neck, or bum. Rule 3: If more than one person is pushed down at the same time, everyone takes a break. With a facilitator nearby to monitor the body language and tone of the game, the three founding children happily played "Roughy-Toughhy" for many weeks. Eventually they welcomed others into the game, but only if they followed the strict safety rules of the game.
In the right context and with proper facilitation, this kind of playing can be a rich source of learning and connection for children. It can:
-Stimulate growth in the brain regions responsible for memory, learning, language and logic, though we are not yet sure why.
-Contribute to children's emotional intelligence, as they work to read each other's emotions and boundaries, and make predictions about how their actions will make their friend feel.
-Support the development of their awareness around their own boundaries and those of others, which helps them learn to manage themselves and communicate their experience to other people.
-Lead to gains in self-control as children work to maintain the fun in the game by controlling their bodies and respecting the limits and rules set out by the players
-Build children's turn taking skills.
-Lead to lots of laughter and joy, and can be a very cathartic activity.
We support children to roughhouse safely by ensuring the environment in which they play is safe, and by checking in with the children if we notice the tone of the play changing. We also might work together with the children to make rules for the game which make all the players feel safe. We make sure as well to choose a safe location for our rough and tumble play, away from large rocks or tripping hazards. Overall this type of play leads to gains in physical and emotional confidence, especially for those children who are slower to speak up or on the shy or anxious side.
Many children have a natural urge to roughhouse. Most adults today have some childhood memories of roughhousing, some of which may be positive and others less so. It's true that roughhousing can lead to children crossing each other's boundaries. This in itself, when explored in a supportive environment, is a valuable experience. Children get to experience what it feels like to have a boundary crossed, and to find their voice to communicate in that moment, instead of freezing up. On the flip-side, they learn what it looks like when they have crossed a friend's boundary. What is their body language like? What does their face look like? I believe this is a valuable experience when had in the context of a trusting friendship with supportive adults around to support this learning. When I see children who care about each other roughhousing, I see them moving towards closeness, connection, and exploring what their bodies can do in a developmentally normal way. I see them learning about themselves and each other in an intense, thrilling, exciting, and cathartic way.
It's not true that only boys roughhouse - many girls will roughhouse when given permission and room to explore this type of play. However, boys may more often be observed roughhousing because as a culture we give them more permission to be take risks and be boisterous, especially in the physical realm. What boys have less permission to do is show physical affection for each other. Sometimes, roughhousing can represent a socially acceptable way for boys to experience physical contact with other boys. A big part of roughhousing is about connection.
One tool we often bring into the forest is ropes of various thicknesses and lengths. Over the year, children get the chance to practice using ropes and string, and work on learning to tie a knot. One fun way to gain confidence with knots is to play "Pass-the-Knot." In this game, two people tie the most difficult knot they can in a length of rope. Then they switch knots, and try to untie each others' creations. It is so satisfying to untie a knot, and fun to try and make it hard for your friend!
Large-group cooperative play begins to emerge between 4 and 6 years of age, and in our wednesday afternoon group this has taken the form of dragon play. In this game, the children "fly" with the arms waving up and down. They also do a lot of growling and fire-breathing! Most of all they zoom around the forest as they "learn to fly and hunt." Sometimes they even cook dragon feasts with lots of "butter" i.e wet shredded wood. Evidently dragons' favourite food is butter!
At site 3 in the forest, the children have access to lots of large logs which they can move around, including a few they have been using as a see-saw!
Of course, one of our favourite parts of the day is snack and story time. Fuel for both the body and the imagination, to spark the play ahead!