Toys Come In

Originally published in May 2014

His eyes got really big and he held his breath. I couldn't figure out what he was doing, and then I also noticed his spine going rigid. He was trying not to cry. I had broken his heart. This happened several years ago during what is best described as a "photo shoot" of stuffies and lovies the children were asked to bring into school. This child had a bungie cord. And dear readers, you now have the advantage of knowing that he brought in the bungie cord as his lovie, but at the time I simply did not put that together. I told him he needed to keep that in his backpack until we got outside because of the way he was carrying it and hooking it to things as he walked around. When the tears got stuck in his eyes, I could see it and could see how he went from something he felt so proud of and LOVED so dearly to having the whole thing crash in and misunderstood.

We regrouped, discussed, I owned the mistake I made and we negotiated the photo shoot and the welcoming of this special love that he "had since I was a baby driving in my car." Live and learn.

Here is the thing, special comfort items from home make perfect sense in an early childhood classroom. Not all children have them, but many do and these are relevant extensions of their beings. We make room for them during circle time, story time, and during play.

We also allow toys from home to be brought in and this is something that I have heard is unusual, so let me share why and how we do this.

To begin with the "why", when I was earning my MAT degree, one of my professors described the following situation -- Imagine that a person just became engaged. The person comes into the office, excited to share the news and maybe to show off the ring. Then what if someone said, "You need to stop that. You are making other people feel bad because you won't let them take a turn wearing your ring and they don't have one like yours." In the adult world, this would not fly. Why would we think it would in the child's world?

The why also has to do with the story about the bungie cord. Who am I to say what a comfort item should be? A comfort item is something that helps you connect with others, right? It could be a bungie cord or it could be a toy. And it could even be a fully branded, plastic, mass-produced toy! The thing becomes almost like a totem -- "here is the thing that signals to you what I know." It tells others the play language you speak and will sometimes, when you are still learning the language of play will provide you with the words that you cannot give voice to yourself.

These are not items or materials that I would purchase for the classroom and interestingly many of these toys come from the thrift shop or are so thoroughly bedraggled and chewed on that they seem, at first sight, mangled beyond repair. Once considered though, you begin to realize how well-loved these things are. "I will look past your mostly-yanked out hair and wonky wheels because you still represent that special something I need today."

So last week, one of the Tracks -- a child who is a one-friend player approached one of the other Tracks, a small world player. He asked, "Do you want to play RescueBots?" At first she stared at him as if he was speaking a foreign language and also, he had never asked her to play before. "What?" she said each time he asked the same question. I realized that she simply did not know what RescueBots were. I know I didn't. He ran to get the Bots, he reviewed the many options (his backpack was filled) and even let her choose his newest Bot. The Bots gave them both entrée to a new play arc.

There are so many reasons to make room for these special items and I will tell you how we make room. We simply provide guidelines. You don't have to share (or give someone a turn with your special item) and of course the road is really bumpy before it smooths out. What really good adventure takes an always-smooth road? If there are moving parts, you might want to think about where you are playing with it. Is the sandpit the best place or maybe on one of the boulders where there is no sand? Are there many pieces? You might want to carry it in a bag as you move from place to place. Yes, things get left behind, but we have cubbies to store them in 'til the next day and a camera to take a photo of the item comfortably nesting there to be emailed home.

In the Tracks class, we may say that toys from home must wait in the dramatic play space because they won't stop talking to each other during circle time and story time. And the knowing about the time and place gives the children ownership of their needs. They carefully place the items in a pile -- look, they have friends waiting, waiting.

Here is a video of the play that blends a collection of toys from home, our unit blocks, and a cameo appearance by Two-ey a much-loved blanket who is playing the rescue monster in the play. Take that meteors. Thwarted again!

Comfort items have a place in every classroom and the teachers and the children at our school are open to negotiating the use of toys from home in the classroom. We offer a time and place for these special things to join the play conversation -- even if that conversation begins, "This is very special to me and I don't want share it."

They DON’T have to share!