I just find it so fascinating to watch and listen to children play! There is so much going on in their play and so much beneath the surface driving their play. Play offers children a stage for practicing, experimenting and processing! What a gift we are giving our children to allow them this small window of time to be children wild and free just working hard playing.
During all NLA days right now we are noticing even the children who previously skirted around the perimeter of the group play are now experimenting with "trying to get in the mix" of the group play happening.
We know play is developmental from solitary play, to parallel side by side play to social group play. Realizing this reminds us that how ever a child is "playing" at this moment (as long as it is not hurting someone or damaging property) is "right where they need to be". No matter how much we as adults want to see our children form "friendships" and "connect" with other children it will only happen when the child is ready.
With a multi-age group of children like we have at NLA there is a huge range of development! This range of ages offers our children rich, real-life opportunities to practice and experience the many social situations that will continuously arise throughout their lives. Real life situations like how to get into a group, how to have a strong voice and say "no," and even just what being a "friend" means. Experiencing and experimenting with these different situations is how social learning happens and it's not always pretty!
One of the situations that comes with social group play and will continue to arise throughout our children's lives (even as adults) is "exclusion." This is truly a hard one to handle whether your child is the one being excluded or is the one doing the excluding! Most children "try out" both at one time or another and it doesn't mean that your child is a bully or that your child is cruel or mean (even though it may sound that way), but that they are just "learning" and practicing new skills.
I want to touch on what we can do as adults to help support these real life experiences without shutting down the "practice" that the children need. First, I think it is important to point out that these "exclusions" could be triggering a childhood memory of feeling left out for yourself. I know as a very quiet child who disliked competition I was pretty much always the last to be chosen for team sports in school, so these memories of feeling excluded would just flood over me when I saw my child being excluded! I was lucky to have an amazing mentor who pointed out that while we want to protect our children from the pains that we went through as children, nothing teaches anyone anything better that true "experience."
The ability to get into a social group and knowing how to be a friend is something we all had to experience....we didn't learn it from being told or shown. As painful as it was I learned that I could step back and support my children when needed while not taking the experience from them. And yes, having four children I saw my children on both sides of this issue, the excluder and the one being excluded!
As adults we want our children to all just get along, but true "free" play actually allows for children to not only choose what they play, but also whom they play with! There are many reasons a child may decide to "exclude" another child in their play. Sometimes children seem to need the "power" to make the choice about who they want in their play at the moment, sometimes its just a fear of someone coming in and changing their play or wrecking their space or sometimes we all just need some space to play alone. We can't always know the reason for the exclusion unless the child is willing to tell us.
We know that most of the time if we step back the children will figure it out. When we do need to step in there are ways to support without completely squashing the learning that could happen!
Ways to help when needed: Children may need help with delivering the exclusion message in a more gentle way (again this takes lots of experience and practice). Here the "Sports caster" approach can work well. You just repeat what the child said, "right now I hear you saying you want to play by yourself", or "you want to only play with "so in so" right now." This takes the "personal" from it and just states what is happening, so we can then support them all.
Sometimes we can help them find another space to play (if they are trying to control a space like the mud kitchen or the tower) or we can help the child being excluded by finding someone else to play with for the moment. We usually see that the exclusion is temporary!