When the Implicit Environment is Not Enough

The Truck Boys

"The Truck Boys." Many years ago, this is what some of the parents and children called the three boys who played with trucks. Playing with trucks was not all they did, of course, but the playing with trucks was so notable, so B-I-G, the name stuck. They didn't just roll trucks around, they WERE the trucks that rolled around. They rode those little plastic trucks down the berm which was much bigger in those days. They looked like Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove with the same amount of whoopin' and a hollerin'. They also rolled themselves down in garbage cans. They rolled themselves down -- they did not wait for help, they did not work together, they simply got in the cans and hurtled themselves down the berm. One of them was the first and only one (so far) to go over the fence and by going over the fence, I mean that he climbed out of the tallest bit of the fence without any supports. He is a rock climber and competitive mountain biker today. They tolerated high levels of physical contact, they preferred to run rather than walk, and they really, really did not want to talk about stuff. Ever. Okay?!?!

It just so happens that these three boys were the youngest in a class that was mostly older girls. By older, I mean that almost all of them turned 5 in the first two months of the school year. This detail, of course, was not the only thing to remember about their story either. It did bring with that age and experience, however, a sense of decorum or of being settled that contrasted with the rolling mayhem of the three boys. The girls would sit back and watch these three, while holding their babies or drawing pictures, as the boys tore around on legs that were giant wheels. There were other boys in the class and other girls, but the quality of each group's was so different, it was very noticeable and very much there. Each class has its own group-think or characteristic and this was theirs. The children who did not sit and play or run and shout, simply found other things to do each day or would choose to join in with one group or the other, and parents found that they could find ways to support most of the children. In the end though, the 3 boys were left to their own devices because their play moved too fast for the co-opers.

The parents of these boys did not like the name given to them. They felt it limited our understanding of them and singled them out. Even though these three were, and are, physical contact-kind of people, they were, and are, quite gentle and kind. The name, "The Truck Boys" sold them short and this was before we had these week in reviews and no way to effectively walk towards a hard conversation like this with the co-oping team.

Words and Labels

This story is about the implicit and explicit messaging, something that we talk a lot about at our school -- research shows the implicit messaging about race and gender has very little effect on children's understanding on the subjects and does little to stop bias from developing. Just last week, when we read Red Sled, the Tracks had a great discussion about whether the human in the story is a girl or boy. One of the children determined that the character was a girl on the inside, but a boy on the outside. This idea that gender is not as simple as a boy or girl designation is something we teach explicitly at our school. Children are not thinking just about gender and race (the obvious things). Children spend a lot of time sorting and categorizing. This is what humans do, but especially young humans. This is how the designation "truck boy" came about in the first place.

At our school, we walk towards discussions like this because an implicit design of "we are all friends" will not even cut it! This also means that "living by example" in regards to communicating anti-bias or gaining understanding about scary -and very real subjects- like terrorism, war, violence, death will also not work. Direct instruction, or more specifically, direct conversations must take place for children to gain understanding about these subjects.

There are lots of sentences that begin these direct conversations that we have collected over the years...

"I don't like curly hair."

"She gets mosquito bites because her skin is brown."

"I have to have lotion because my skin is brown, but E. doesn't because her skin is pink."

"A. is C.'s mommy and his other mommy A. is C.'s daddy."

"I don't like girls." and "I don't like boys."

"You have no daddy, you have no daddy, you have no daddy."

"She bites and pushes me when no one is looking."

"He pulls my hair."

All of these are the beginning of conversations we walk towards and of course, in so many instances, we shape the conversations without waiting for the words to be said because we know that children will sort and categorize people and their activities in a way that will make sense to them. We must have an explicit design when it comes to our social stories. I was joking/not joking the other day because now when I read books that feature families with a mother and father, I must explicitly go through the list of family configurations so that the children will hear me talk about other kinds of families because we currently do not have any mommy/mommy or daddy/daddy or single parent families in the Leaves and Tracks. The joking part is that it takes that much longer to get through the book and the not joking part is that this is serious business and quite necessary to make these observations out loud. We cannot lose that particular thread.

A few years ago, we had a boy who used to hit and kick other children as he moved past them through a room or played outside. There are many reasons why children may do this, from language delays, to information processing delays, to developmental delays that are related to sensory processing, etc. Each child has his or her own story which we must unravel. In his case, he truly believed that he needed to do this before others did it to him -- he was hitting and kicking them preemptively to protect himself. He was able to verbalize this, he told us this was why he had to kick and hit other children. We do not know why he had this idea, but he did and in this case it turned out that the why was not as important as what to do about it. 

I used to sit with him on the playground and narrate the play arcs we were watching unfold. I would note that the children were not kicking and hitting, but he assured me that they would soon. Any minute. So, what were we to do? We taught the other children about "wide berth." We explained during circle meetings and small group meetings, that he needed an extra large egg. The other children understood and accommodated his space. Now the question we would have is that by having this public discussion, are we singling him out, are we marking him, labeling him? Well, here is the deal. He was already labeled as a hurter. It was our job to shape a greater understanding around his world view in order for him not to become just a single thing. The children learned about his extra big egg. They would move their legs, feet, and hands as he walked through circle so that he could walk through without worrying. With this added care shown by the other children, he gained greater comfort and had more room to play alongside others. He was not singled out, rather, he was welcomed in a way that was comfortable and in turn, more successful, for his unique way of viewing the world. Opportunities which would have presented themselves dwindled and his "pre-response" action did as well.

Building a Social Vocabulary

Just this past week, one of our Tracks children shaped a layer of renewed understanding about another child. She signaled "battle." If you have not heard this word already, this is what this year's Tracks call rough and tumble on the rare occasion it comes up. He signaled battle right back, but then took it a step farther and pushed her down. She wasn't ready for the push and she went down hard and fast. We talked about it and then later, she told me that he is "mean." This is a word that explains how she feels about someone pushing her down, but there is more to his story. She listened while I told the story again. He likes to battle and if he sees the signal returned, he will think it is battle time. He plays with older children at home and they have a comfortable set up, so he thought the set up would transfer. Anyway, I know the conversation has landed with her because the next day she said, "___ is not very playable." This word/new definition reveals that she has added a layer in attempting to understand a play pattern that is not mean, but developing! They are all learning to be playable in different contexts! 

The amazing thing about children is that once they have participated in a discussion purpose-built to gain greater understanding of others, they will bring it to the next level -- they begin to build empathy and a greater understanding about the range of differences in humans. We are all different and complicated and we live together on the planet.