There can only be one Clara and other tales from nursery school

At some point in the year, we can rely on hearing the "there is only one rule" in the 3s class. And we hope for it, because it gives us lots of room  for the, "of course there can be more than one" negotiation. When the children are 2, there can be lots of "ones" -- there can be several mothers, countless babies, brothers, sisters, dogs, and kittens. This is because they are mostly playing by themselves and just happen to be in a room at the same time with others. Then, like a wonderful book-end, as the children are 4 and turn 5, the more than one rule returns through negotiation and the agree to agree rule. As children begin to become more aware of each other related to play you will hear, "There can only be one..." After this, the children land into negotiation of the "more than one" option. They agree to agree that everyone has a place at the dramatic play table. In the 3s and just-4s class (our Leaves class), they come up against that negotiation of "the one" with a level of commitment that could certainly power up the universe. When our Clara of Nutcracker fame, declared, "I am Clara and there can only be one," I positively jumped for joy because I knew the Leaves class was, at long last, in play.

"It is time to sit. Listen. Just listen and tap your feet. This is the overture. You just listen and wait." our Clara tells us.

I will admit that this did not come about by accident. In the Leaves class, I will purposefully create opportunities for a child or a group of children to lead the play so that the play can take on new shapes and arcs. We hadn't really landed on a "big idea" to run with in all the months leading to this one. As it happens many of the children attended The Nutcracker together in December and one of them was absolutely entranced by the whole deal, recording his thoughts on it in his journal and telling and retelling the whole story. I told him the day before our drama session, that we would be playing The Nutcracker the next day and there were new dress-ups that would be just the thing. Then when the day arrived, I asked him to tell those gathered how the story rolls out which he did with an enthusiasm that was unparalleled. I asked him to participate in the next drama session as well. This was necessary because not only would it bring about a second opportunity for the "only one" discussion, but his own personal interaction with the story was only half done because he discovered a better Clara-dress and shoes only at the end of that first session.

As you can imagine, when he declared, "I am Clara and there can only be one," more than one taffeta-clad person stopped in their high-heeled tracks and said, "That's not true. I am Clara," and "No, I am Clara." Rather than playing the who is the real Clara, we launched into a conversation about how many Claras the play would support. I had our Clara-officienado outline all the other parts while we were at it. Some people switched almost immediately over to the Uncle when they found out or remembered that he delivers presents. I found that interesting. In the end, the negotiation was quite short and this must be credited to our original Clara's open-heartedness, who was able to hold true to the "only one" rule inside his head while allowing room for other Claras in the play. What an important skill!

Will the real Clara please stand up?

This happened in the same week that we encountered another dramatic play problem in the 4s and mostly 5s (the Tracks class). I call this problem, "The Bell" and I realized that the problem occurred because of this very thing we fashion purposefully, creating time and place for one child to lead the play. When I use the word problem here, it might be important to know that I view most problems as an opportunity for problem solving. The Bell presented an invaluable opportunity for problem solving.

Here is the deal and it is quite simple and you can imagine the problem -- one of the Tracks decided that he would ring a bell whenever the play got too loud. For parents at our school and any visitors, you know where this is headed!

This is the bell. Our bell ringer would use it to signal that the play was 'too loud.'

At first, the other Tracks would check their "Come on, let's go!" shouts and their "Save me!" pleas along with all their other jumps and swirls, each time he rang the bell. It was not long before the bell was clanging for minutes at a time and the other Tracks were batting at the sound like it was a mosquito buzzing 'round their heads -- you can't stop saving people and jumping-swirling even when there is a mosquito buzzing 'round!

Interestingly, that very act of setting out the task for one child or a small group of children to lead the play will tumble out, at some point, with someone ringing a bell to signal that it is too loud. Of course it does! Once modeled, observed and practiced, children will find opportunities to lead the play. And it might not be the play others envision. This was in the Tracks class and the child had not been able to convince others to play out the scenario he wanted. He chose a role that would manage the play arc others were shaping.

I waited for the inevitable, "They're not listening to me!" And it came pretty quickly. He moved closer to one of the rescuing knights and rang the bell in his ear. The look that resulted did not phase our bell ringer. He rang it MORE. The knight simply moved away.

During our debrief meeting at the end of the session, we talked about "The Bell" as we reviewed what worked and what didn't work. It was pretty unanimous that the bell was not working, of course from differing perspectives -- there were two camps, the they-are-not-listening and the I-don't-like-it camps. "Do you not like other people telling you what to do?"..."No, I do not."..."Parents and teachers have to sometimes tell you what to do. Is that kind of telling okay?"..."Yes, but I don't like other people telling me," I confirmed that the "other people" meant "other children" and that was indeed the consensus. Our bell ringer considered this feedback and stood by his need to manage this noise business. As of this writing it is not resolved, but he was able to walk away with some comfort knowing that he had solved the turning all the lights out business. So much to manage during dramatic play!

Fixing the Light Switch

Without the agree to agree, it is really tough to get to the play. Will I put the bell away so that this problem doesn't occur? No, it will have to stay in arm's reach until the children arrive at an understanding. I also hope to enjoy at least a couple more Nutcracker play sessions. It is just a bonus that the nighttime portions of that play will be better managed with our new tape marker for the light switches!

Onward and upward, only-Clara, the game is afoot!