Sunday, 29 May 2016

Guns and Play Themes that Make Adults Uncomfortable

The irony of our outdoor program “Learning in the Woods” is that sometimes the most valuable learning is done by the adults involved; parents and facilitators.  The program is child-lead and sometimes the themes and topics that arise challenge the adults to reconsider some of the ideas they hold dear.  This week’s theme was pretend play with guns. 

So, in our Thursday morning session this past week, we had a beautiful example of why I believe, as adults, we would want to refrain from intervening in a game that involves imaginary guns.  After our check in meeting, Claudia and I watched as the kids negotiated teams and rules for their game.  It involved protecting and raiding the forts they had been working on the past several weeks.  Once the starting signal for the game was called out, the kids excitedly began to invade and defend – with sticks as guns.  While the point of the game was about invasions, the kids spent most of their time negotiating the rules.  Fairness, keeping the flow of the game interesting and exciting, and creating a believable storyline were the main topics of discussion.  Despite the gun props, the action that took place wasn’t gruesome or violent.  For the kids, thinking about those realities of guns was not the focus of the game.  They decided that it was going to be more fun if getting “shot” meant they were frozen for 30 seconds, then continued playing.  This 30 second freeze rule seemed to create more action and encouraged more risk-taking among the kids.  It was also a multi-age game that involved an age range of 2 years old to 12 years old.  As they played I heard “Are you coming little guy?”  “Are you Ok little guy?”  “Wait, little guy needs longer because he can’t run as fast!” and other concerns for the youngest member of the group.  After playing for about 20 minutes, the game dismantled and the kids moved onto other things. 

I think that had we stopped the gun aspect of the game, the game would have dismantled altogether; the kids would have felt their world of make-believe had been invaded…and the kids would have missed out on other aspects of the game like building empathy, negotiation, and some intense exercise.  If Claudia and I had let our preconceived ideas that “guns are bad and should not be a part of our society” ruled the children’s play, we would have pushed our meaning, our reality into the front and center of their world.

Knowing that I was going to write a blog post about this, I asked my son, who was playing Thursday morning, for his input.  His initial response was so telling;

“These adults know we’re just playing right?  They know it’s just pretend, right?”

“Yes, but some adults think that even playing with pretend guns shouldn’t be allowed because they know what real guns do.  Do you know what real guns do?” 

“Yes they scare and hurt and kill people.  I’d never play with a real gun.  This is just pretend.  It’s not a big deal.  I play cars and crash them and I play zombies and dragons and none of it is real.  It’s all just pretend.” 

“Some adults worry that by playing pretend games with guns.  They want their kids to be safe and so the adults make a rule that kids can’t play with pretend guns to try to keep them safe in real life.  Why do kids want to play games with pretend guns anyway?  (I was curious!)” 

“It’s just what’s in their head.  It doesn’t mean anything.  It’s just what’s in their head, so they play that and then it’s out of their head.  That’s it.” 

Ah, I love kid wisdom. 

At Learning in the Woods we have a strong belief in providing the opportunity for free play.  Therefore, we don’t discourage the kids from playing make-believe games that involve guns, swords, or cannon balls (which is a popular choice among the pirate-loving 3 and 4 year olds).  It’s easier for adults to accept play that involves swords, arrows, and cannon balls because we don’t often come across stories of violence in our society that involve these weapons.  However, a lot of adults feel really uncomfortable with the idea of imaginary games involving guns.  Our children have fewer opportunities to experience free play without adult involvement and interruption than previous generations; their play has never been this closely observed or monitored.  Peter Grey has done extensive research into children’s play and his work shows that children have always played games with dark, powerful themes and exploring those ideas are necessary for children’s development.  With children often playing in supervised playdates, it is now harder than ever for children to explore those themes without adults intervening in an effort to influence their play. 

Sometime gun play emerges in superhero play.  Children in our culture live in a world where superheroes have been icons for several generations.  As Teacher Tom says in this blog post; we may not personally see the appeal of playing a game with light sabers and Darth Vader, but as adults, we have already had our chance to explore themes of power and justice that emerge in superhero storylines.  Giving kids the space to forge their own path within the context of the culture they find themselves in and come to their own conclusions around these themes is important.  This is especially true, perhaps even necessary, if you want to evoke a community of trust.

I know I used to feel very strongly about no gunplay, especially when I taught kindergarten.  I still believe very much in promoting non-violence, but instead of telling children how to think and how to play, I am trying to model it through positive parenting techniques and I’m learning about Nonviolent Communication.  Since having my son, I have done a lot of reading about the importance of play.  I think differently now about the value of unstructured play in terms of learning about the world and developing empathy.  I’m now at a point in my understanding where I feel comfortable allowing children the space to explore themes that are important to them, even if they sometimes make me uncomfortable.  If you are interested in exploring the benefits of gun play, Heather Shumaker’s Huff Post article “Why Gun Play is Still OK” is a great play to start.  As she says in her final paragraph, we live in a world that has guns both in fiction and non-fictional culture settings and as long as we have these themes in our society, children will need to use play to make sense of these powerful objects in their world. 

Friday, 13 May 2016

"We Found a Puppy!" (No we didn't...)

Last week at Learning in the Woods, I noticed a strange “call”.  I assumed it was a bird that I had never heard before.  About an hour later, some of the kids ran over yelling excitedly “we found a puppy!”  I immediately thought, that’s possible.  Due to our location, we are used as a local dumping area…we’re not exactly remote.  Perhaps someone did abandon a puppy…

“Actually, it’s a Coyote puppy!” someone called.  Ugh.  By the time I approached the group, the oldest had picked it up, thus quieting it’s “call”.  I tried to get them to put the pup down again and said that we shouldn’t touch it, just leave it…but that was hard to convince the kids to do.  It really did look a puppy but with slightly longer nails.  The pup couldn’t really walk yet and, like a human baby, her eyes were still kind of blue.  It was needy and adorable.

The oldest child was saying how we needed to feed it and that he would take it home.  Younger ones were jumping and excited.  Even the adults were looking at each other trying to make sense of this.  Feeling like I couldn’t think straight with all the excitement, I suggested I call someone to figure out how best to handle the situation. 

Not thinking especially clearly and not finding anyone local in a search for wildlife sanctuaries, I called several other options.  The only one to answer the phone was Hamilton Animal Services.  I asked what we should do and the dispatcher said that they would have to send someone out to assess the situation.  I felt relieved that someone would arrive to help problem solve because I was not thinking straight.  I stood still, scanning the area for coyote mom while we waited.

Animal Services arrived within 15 minutes.  That seemed really fast.  We are in a valley and by the time I got up the hill to our entrance, (I’m pregnant and don’t move as fast as excited kids and non-pregnant adults), the Animal Services Lady was wrapping the pup in a warm blanket and putting her in the van.  I thought we were going to discuss first…maybe everyone had?...this was all moving so fast.

The animal services lady seemed to be done her work as I arrived.  She seemed to be ready to leave.  Feeling uneasy, I asked her; taking the pup, was this the right thing to do?  She asked where we found the pup; we said in the open, near where our play area is.  She said that most likely the coyote mom had abandoned it for one reason or another; that some animals will abandon the runt of the litter to conserve care taking energy for the rest of the litter. 

After she left, I started to calm down...and then some clear thinking and doubt set in.  I thought about how healthy this pup looked and I wanted a second opinion on how things had progressed.  It was then that I found the phone number to Urban Wildlife Care in Grimsby.  It turns out they are our closest provincial wildlife sanctuary willing to take infants, including coyote infants.  This was not one of the numbers I had called initially, but I really didn’t feel settled about how things had progressed so I left a message.

I received a call from Cara the next morning.  Cara’s passion for her work is clear and she is certainly very knowledgeable.  Her rule of thumb when you find a baby animal is WAIT 24 HOURS BEFORE CALLING ANYONE.  Unless you know for sure the baby is orphaned, your best plan is to vacate the area and check in now and then. 

When she said this, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach.  I MESSED UP. I knew this.  From personal experience finding baby raccoons and baby bunnies, I know that they should be left alone for a while to give mom a chance to come back and move them. 

My next question was, why didn’t Hamilton Animal Services suggest this?  Cara said that there are no rules or laws around ensuring this sort of protection for wild animals in Ontario.  It is up to the discretion of the Animal Services agent to decide how best to handle each situation.  So we got someone who thought it was best to take the pup. 

Do they have guidelines or protocol on how to handle a healthy coyote pup in their care?  Cara said that sometimes she will get a call to come and retrieve an orphaned animal from Animal Services but, again, it is up to the individual on the scene to make that assessment. 

I told Cara that we didn’t have any coyotes show up on our hunting cameras in the past month. She said that lots of coyotes make their dens under decks and as people start to use their decks more in the spring, the coyote moms, creatures who generally try to avoid human contact, might decide to move their den location after having their litter.  She wondered if this was the case for our coyote mom.  She was moving her litter and we surprised her mid-move.  I thought of our neighbors surrounding Learning in the Woods; all of them have decks and the weather is finally becoming deck weather. 

I felt so awful. 

Cara and I went on to discuss the politics of funding for wildlife sanctuaries in Ontario.  While Animals Services is municipally funded, she receives a lot of their “referrals”.  Her funding is completely by donation.  There are not many sanctuaries in Ontario because the funding to run them is by donation, so only passionate people are motivated to do this underpaid work.  They also rely heavily on unpaid volunteers.  Infant animals are more costly to care for, so most sanctuaries do not have the resources to take infants.  Plus, infant survival rates are not always very good.  Wildlife sanctuaries like Urban Wildlife Care are inspected provincially and must abide by the province’s minimum standards, but they do not receive funding provincially.  Cara wants so badly for people to care more about Ontario wildlife so that basic care can be provided to all animals; thus minimizing the use of euthanasia.  She wishes people valued wildlife care as much as they do other provincial and municipal services or the SPCA.  Lastly she wishes that more people were aware of the importance of leaving wild baby animals alone for 24 hours.  Lots of people “jump the gun”, like we did, thus making a situation more complicated and costly than it has to be.

I keep asking myself why did this situation evolve the way it did?  I have encountered baby animals before.  I knew to give them space, check on them from a distance, but call if they seem weak or ill or if there was no parental contact in a day.  Why didn’t I do that this time?  If it had looked like a baby skunk or a fox kitten, would it have registered in my brain a little more clearly that THIS IS WILDLIFE? 

I am currently learning about Nonviolent Communication and this week’s reading was about being present and open.  Reflecting back on my own actions, I was not “present” and “open” during the excitement of the pup.  If I could have recognized my own feelings in the moment, that I was feeling confused and excited, (not a good head place for me to be), I would have been better off grounding myself first.  Just taking a moment to breathe and get calm again would have done wonders for my logic to kick in.  Then I would have been in a better place to help the kids get grounded by empathizing with them about their excitement and desire to help.  I could have guided them to find empathy for the pup and the momma coyote without needing to “fix it”. 

Instead I went into a reactionary mode.  Goodness, it is so easy to do.  I think a lot of self-aware parents will admit there are occasions when we are not coming from a calm and centered place.  When things are hairy, it’s easy to slip over into a reactionary solving mode when the best thing we could do is be calm ourselves and offer others a  peaceful space to connect, empathize, and think.

And so, I am writing this blog out of guilt.  It's not a good reason to write a blog.  I usually write as a form of self-expression and I don't really care if anyone reads it or reacts to it anyway.  I write and I'm done.  This blog is different...I'm still very heavy, wrestling with this...

NVC also promotes being compassionate with ourselves.  I feel angry with myself for not making the right choice for this coyote pup.  I feel angry with myself for being reactionary and that I couldn't recognize that I needed to be in a calm place before moving forward.  I didn't recognize that need in myself, and so I made a decision that lead to an outcome that is not in line with my value to be respectful to nature.  Others wish there had been a different outcome too.  I feel insecure because I didn't meet the expectations of others, the expectations that I try to promote about being respectful to nature and responding from a place of calm.   But if I am kind to myself, I can see that I recognized I couldn't think clearly and reached out for help.  I just didn't get in touch with an organization that is in line with my values...Urban Wildlife Care is now on my contacts list though!  Also, I have been trying to reiterate to the kids that the most respectful thing to do would have been to give the pup and the coyote mom space and time to solve the problem on their own.  I'm doing my best to restore balance in accordance with my values.

So I am wishing I had done things differently.  But should you ever find “a puppy” in the woods hopefully you'll remember this blog... And if you need an organization that is in line with caring for animals in a way that is respectful of their natural habitat, here is the info for Urban Wildlife Care.  905-818-5708 or follow on Facebook here.  It’s a great organization to donate to if your family values wildlife in our area or if you like to donate to animal groups like SPCA. 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Risky Play and Trust

What was your favourite play place as a child?  What made it so enjoyable?  My kids found a playground they loved a short walk from our hotel on our recent trip to Orlando.  What made it so much fun?  Well, it was broken! 

The playground had an elevated platform with a raised stepping stone part where each step was secured to both a bar above and a small chain link connection into the ground, allowing the stepping stone to move just slightly.  The movement of the stepping stones was so slight, that it did not provide much a challenge for kids beyond the age of 3 yrs.  However, much to my son’s delight, the first stepping stone was missing and the challenge was perfect!

Upon arriving at the park, my son felt uncomfortable with the missing step and asked for help to get to the next step in line.  I moved it as close to him as I could, but the stepping stones didn’t have much of a chain on either tether, so it didn’t move much.  He still had to stretch his body to make the step.  The other stepping stones were really easy for him and he quickly sailed across.  The next time he crossed, he didn’t ask for help.  I watched him stretch his body and take a little leap of faith at the end; trusting that he would reach the next stepping stone as he released his grip and footing from the platform.  I wasn’t totally sure he could do it myself, but I knew that he loves to leap across boulders on the escarpment edge near our house; I knew I could trust his judgement about his limits.  Sure enough, after a few more tries he had mastered this missing step in the stepping stone poles and he was off to explore something else.

Another family arrived to play and the mother, seeing the missing stepping stone pole, told her daughter “I’ll help you.  This pole is missing; don’t try to cross this section without my help.”  The daughter crossed with the mom’s help, but chose not to cross the stepping stone poles again.  I think I know why…

More kids arrived at the park and a game of playground tag ensued.  My son eagerly swung across the missing stepping stone pole and other kids practiced and mastered the missing stepping stone pole too while the girl avoided the section altogether. 

The girl’s mother had been talking to another parent but was now paying attention to the game.  As my son approached the stepping stones she yelled “Stop!” and rushed over to push the second stepping stone close to my son for him to cross.  Well, he did stop, as did all the other children.  My son obliged and politely crossed the missing stepping stone with the mother’s help but something else happened too…the kids all stopped playing their game of tag.  The element of danger, fun, and learning, had disappeared with this mother’s seemingly conscientious intervention.  Such a small well-intentioned gesture on her part, but such a huge impact on the flow of play and learning.  This mother had a need for safety for the children on the playground, but instead of addressing her need in a way that was respectful of the children’s abilities, boundaries, and flow of play, she put her need at the center of the play, unaware that they had already mastered this “danger”.

I’d like to relate this idea of needs to learning for a moment.  Some people wonder why I feel so strongly about self-directed learning.  Why wouldn’t I want to choose the things my child is learning or find fun ways to guide them in the direction I think they need to grow?  Because if I were to direct my son’s learning, I would be fulfilling my needs, not his.  I would be tricking or manipulating him to learn what I think he should, to match my vision of the world or to appease my fears.  The world we live in is intensely competitive, I understand why parents want to teach their children what they think will give them a “leg up”. 

Children play because it is the most engaging and appealing way to learn.  When adults try to direct
play or learning, the child is not pursuing learning for their own benefit.  They are trying to please the adults they love and that takes away from their own self-awareness and ability to “learn how to learn”.  I don’t want my son to learn out of shame, guilt, or fear…nor do I want him to play in ways that suit my vision of his abilities or disabilities.  I want him to; pursue the things that interest him, to recognize his limits and ask for help when there is a gap that feels too big to overcome himself, and to approach new challenges with delight and interest.  He cannot do that without a certain amount of trust and freedom on my part.  Without me being aware of my own fears and needs, I won’t be able to provide the trust he needs to find his limits and challenge himself in the ways that are most meaningful to him.  The world is changing at such a rate, that I truly believe this is the best way for me to prepare him for the future.  I really do my best to trust that he will learn what he needs to learn, when he is ready to learn it, to get himself where he wants to go. 

I really believe the best gift we can give our children is our own self-awareness and the best learning and play environments are those filled with available, self-aware adults.  The next time you are at a playground, observe the adults.  Are the adults coaching their child about how to interact because they don’t want their child to struggle with potential rejection or avoid their own embarrassment (at the expense of the child learning firsthand the nuances of playground socialization).  Are they directing their child’s activities in an effort to “push” them to achieve a goal that they value?  Or do they give space for the child to discover the world at their own pace?  Do they have the patience to watch and intervene when requested?  I know which parent I'm striving to be!