I was part of an interesting conversation going on among several thoughtful parents and teachers online the other day, about whether or not adults should intervene when young children exclude each other from play. Some follow the book by Vivian Gussin Paley, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play (as in, they make that a rule). Others feel that it is every child’s right to decide with whom they want to engage and it is overstepping to get involved and attempt to police the children’s social interactions. Some point out that we should be less focused on the excluders and more focused on the child being left out, helping him or her to cope with those feelings of hurt and discomfort. Some teachers offer to play with that child instead. So, what is the “best” course of action?

I think the answer is a little bit of all of that. I’ve tried lots of methods over the years alongside inspiring mentors, some years being heavily involved in the social lives of the kids, other years being fairly hands-off. Now I lean toward trying to help them learn how to include. It’s a skill that can be taught, but here are several considerations to take into account. First, you have to think about the individual children involved (whether or not they have a history together, their personalities, and developmental stages). A child who lacks practice with other kids may not be able to successfully approach a child who has had plenty of sibling/neighbor/preschool kid experience without support!

Notice what the excluder was working on before the excluded child approached, does it make sense that it would be easier not to make room for someone new? Finally, find out how the newcomer approached. Was the child trying to get in so quiet that no one noticed him/her/them? Or was the child loud and silly (behavior that is appealing to some children, off-putting to others)? Sometimes an adult’s energy is best spent helping the sad child who has been told no, either to find something else to do or someone else to play with. But have you ever noticed that it’s often the same child getting left out of the group, and the same child or children making that call?

A teacher I love used to say, “Words can feel like a punch.” I agree. Even if a child didn’t mean to hurt another child, hurting someone’s feelings should be treated seriously. Does that mean that everyone has to play with everyone? Not exactly. If you force children to play with each other, they might agree to do it, but some of the more savvy excluders will make that child feel unwanted until they cry or leave. This can be masterfully done through pretending they can’t hear that child’s words (ignoring), running away without telling the child, whispering to others, forcing that child into undesirable roles in the game, saying no to all his/her ideas, etc.

If a child is sad, this is a problem to be solved. In a community of caring individuals, it’s not okay to ignore someone’s suffering! If a child hurts another child physically, s/he can go get an ice pack to make it better. If a child makes someone upset with words, the remedy is less clear. With that said, sometimes there is a reason (to the children, at least) for why they refused to accept another child wanting to join. The first thing that needs to happen is for the adult observing (or being told that someone is being left out) to resist assigning blame, or assuming that the children who have higher status in the group are being mean or bad. Often, it is simply a misunderstanding, and we are there to help! “Bad” behavior is mistaken behavior. The child/ren didn’t know a better way.

After you have made sure that you are approaching the situation with as neutral a perspective as you can manage, you can ask what happened. This is easier said than done, since sometimes a powerful child can remind us of someone who used to bully us when we were children, or we might see an emotionally reactive child as either “too sensitive” or in need of rescuing. If a child rubs you the wrong way, ask yourself if that child reminds you of someone you know or used to know! Assume that there will be different versions of what happened. No one perspective is right, and each child will want you on their side. You can remind the children that you are not there to decide what happens next, you are only there to help them talk it out and listen to each other.

It’s easy to feel sorry for the child that is being left out of the group. But we should also try to find empathy for the child who says no to another child joining the game. The child saying no is often afraid. They are afraid of losing something: social standing in the group (“I started this game, so they should listen to me, and I have to control it or I might not be in charge anymore!”), or the game itself that they worked hard to create and get off the ground (“Our game could change now, because this other child might have ideas!”), or friends (“What if the friend I’m playing with leaves with the other person and I’m left out?”).

In the post about Problems I talked about a problem-solving chart. It’s a visual guide that outlines the steps to problem-solving, and someone being sad for whatever reason is a problem. There will be times that you can’t go through all of this (there’s a transition about to happen, or a bigger crisis nearby), but when you don’t know what happened, that’s a perfect time to slow down and get curious. Any opportunity to practice conflict resolution is good! “Your friend is crying, we are having a problem. I wonder if anyone knows what happened?” The bystanders can be really helpful in this moment. The child that said no might worry about being “in trouble” and fall silent… but some observers love to report!

Occasionally, the concern is valid when someone is rejected. “I’m worried that she is going to break our house!” or “He was roaring and it’s too scary and there’s no monster in this game!” In those cases, you only have to help the children hammer out mutual agreements for how the play will unfold. But sometimes you hear, “We already have someone being that character,” or “But we don’t have enough princess dresses and you have to wear a princess dress to be in our game” (that one feels extra unfair, but it’s a common one).

The adult can say something like, “Oh! At this school (or, in our family if you’re a parent at the playground), everyone makes their own decisions about what they’re playing/who they want to be in the game.” The adult should repeat what the child has said. “He says he’ll be very careful,” or “She said she wants to be a princess, so what else can she do if there aren’t more dresses?” or “I guess there will have to be 3 mommies in this game because I heard her say that she doesn’t want to be the dog.”

In some ways, I do believe in You Can’t Say You Can’t Play… but there are exceptions. Insisting that all the players be a specific gender, or citing a lack of materials/supplies as the reason someone can’t join, isn’t fair because it isn’t changeable. But what if there really isn’t enough to go around? If all the blocks in the block area are being used, you really can’t build anything (because forced sharing does not help children become more generous, as I mentioned in another post). Then the child has choices: come back later when more materials are available, offer something else to the game (“I’ll go get the fire trucks–do we need those?”), or even just watch for a while to collect ideas.

Another reason kids say no to a new child coming along could be that a couple of children have spent a very long time working on something together, and it would be difficult and risky to add more people to the mix (it’s a fragile construction, or a small, crowded space). There are times when we can’t think of a solution of how to include someone new, and then the teacher can help the child that can’t join the game tolerate waiting by finding a different friend or activity.

Sometimes children will say to a teacher (or a parent will report they’ve said it at home), “No one will play with me.” Ouch! However, if you dig deeper you may find out that child never approached anyone to play. Or they want another child to approach them and play the game they want to play! It’s a hard lesson for some children (especially those who are used to playing with adults or older children who let them lead) that sometimes you have to choose: do I want to be in charge of what we’re playing, or do I want to have a friend?

“But I really want to play with only so-and-so and we never get to be alone.” I tell the children that that plan doesn’t really work at school. I usually say brightly, “That’s so nice that you are friends and want to play together! Let’s tell your parents to set-up a play date! In fact, let’s write a note so we don’t forget.” At school you can choose to be alone, or you can choose to be with friends. Saying yes to one friend and no to another hurts feelings. What I don’t say to them but I also think, is that the person who was “chosen” in that moment doesn’t really feel good either, because tomorrow they could be cast aside for someone else!

“Can I play?” Sometimes that works. But unfortunately, if you ask, you are going to give another child the chance to say NO. Try coaching children to ask instead, “What are you playing?” And tell them, “if you don’t get an answer, keep trying! Say it louder, ask another child, tap someone on the shoulder, but don’t just give up!” Suggest while you wait, you watch what’s happening in the game. Sometimes the most seamless way to join is simply to figure out what the other children are doing and join in. Another question that works is, “What can I be in the game?” At school we practice these skills by acting them out at gathering times, which is actually great fun.

I made up a song to the melody of that old Hap Palmer tune, “What Are You Wearing?” It goes: “What Are You Playing, What Are You Playing, What Are You Playing? Me Too, Me Too!” We introduce these words to the kids, and sometimes just sing it to the air if we notice someone asking to enter play and in that agonizing space of waiting for someone to answer. Simply assuming you’ll be included, and announcing your arrival with confidence rather than asking works a surprising number of times!

Tone of voice matters. Make sure your tone of voice is friendly (if you sound irritated, they are not going to feel like you’re there to help them!), and if a child is not going to be let in for reasons you all agree are fair, there are kind and less kind ways to say it. Words like, “No! You get out!” or “You always want to play with me, I don’t like you!” can be hurtful. Give them other words to use, like “There isn’t room in here right now,” or “I’ll play with you later!”

Sometimes if a child is really having a hard time, either staying included (“They went to a new area without me!”) or following the parameters that the group has outlined (“She said she wouldn’t yell at me in here and she is!”) after we’ve already discussed it, I will suggest finding different peers. Unfortunately, this type of suggestion is often ignored, because the child really wants to be with a certain other child or in a certain area, but it’s worth a try! I might say, “I’m worried about your feelings, because we’ve already talked about this and they still aren’t really listening to you, maybe we should take a break and find friends that want to be with you.” Even if the child isn’t ready to move on, it’s good for them to know they have choices.

Try to end on an “up” note. “Oh, I’m happy you solved that problem (or you found these friends instead)! Do you need anything else?” or “I’m so relieved that that worked out! Look at these friends playing together and smiling!” It’s nice to revisit what happened later when someone being included led to more fun being had. Including others (especially someone with unpredictable behavior, or someone you don’t have much experience with) is a risk. When that risk-taking pays off we want to help children notice in the hopes that they will be more open to the idea in the future.

To leave children to their own devices when it comes to deciding who is in and who is out is not ideal in my mind. It gives certain children (you know, the ones who are super fun, charismatic and never on the receiving end of being excluded) something a teacher I admire calls “icky power”… the power that comes from being better than someone else, not doing the right thing for fun, hurting someone and not caring, etc. More tentative children who are not as smooth socially need practice playing with children, and if they are excluded they can’t practice. The children who are doing the excluding also have a muscle that needs stretching: being flexible. They might end up enjoying the child they originally excluded! But even if they don’t, they will have gained practice in dealing with a child they don’t prefer. That will come in handy on the elementary school playground!