One of the interesting features of full day programs is that there are often times at the beginning and the end of the day when there are only a few children in the room. It’s a perfect time for child directed play. But sometimes during these parts in the day, I wonder what I should be doing while the children play. There’s plenty of child directed play going on during other parts of the day too. But when all the children are at school and the class is spread across the room involved in half a dozen different activities, it’s rare for teachers to have a moment to step back at all. While some of the children might be able and even happy to sustain their own play without teacher involvement, chances are some of the rest will either need or want a teacher playing with or working alongside them. But when it’s only two or three children, deeply engaged in a world they’ve created for themselves, what should the teacher do?
I watched as one child lined up blocks and the other brought over a picnic basket. “Do you want some cookies?” he asked, opening the basket. The block builder accepted a cookie, and then pulled out a stuffed cat from a nearby basket. “But the kitty’s in the middle. The kitty’s gonna come out.” Soon the picnic was being shared by three stuffed cats.
“Here come the zombies,” one of the children announced. “Let’s pretend the kitties are scared. They can also fly. These are like jet packs.” They flew their kitties flew around the room for a bit, then sat down on the couch. And then the conversation took a more somber turn.
“Let’s pretend the mom died. And this kitty is dead. He’s dead. But not really.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the child with the dead kitty look at me slightly, and turn away quickly when my eyes almost met his. I stepped back and turned away, pretending to straighten some paper on the shelves. He pointed to the other cat. “This one is also sad right now because he wanted his mom.”
His friend looked at him thoughtfully, then, carrying the cat, went over to a basket and brought back some snap together gears, reaching out to hand them to him. “But he’s going to find him some toys. It’s a three wheel toy. It’s called a monster car.”
They sat and fiddled with the gears, holding the cats in their laps. They moved the gears around back and forth. There was little conversation, and no invitation for me to join in. I watched, as quiet as they were.
Then the second child, who had brought over a monster car for the sad cat who was missing his mom, spoke up.
“Is this the mom? Because I’m going to get her back alive.” He carried the cat to the sand table and placed her inside, moving her back and forth in the sand. “I’m going to put her in here because it’s a safe place.”
He glanced sideways at me, then shyly smiled, as if suddenly aware that they were being watched. The two children looked at each other, then at me, and dropped their cats and went to play with something else. Quiet as I was, my presence broke into the world of pretense where dead mommy cats can be brought back to life. And what if I had spoken earlier or had tried to bring myself into their play instead of trying to not intrude? Would the spell have been broken sooner?
Even harder than teaching is not teaching. Sitting and doing nothing – not even making eye contact – seems the opposite of teaching. But sometimes that’s what children need. Not direction, suggestion, or facilitation, but the teacher being there just in case she’s needed. And if she’s not needed, getting out of the way of their play. I’m reminded of Waldorf teachers sitting in rocking chairs absorbed in handwork, being present but not intrusive, as the world of the child’s mind unfolds around them. Sometimes the best way we can teach is simply by getting out of the way.