The kids often request that I set up an "art museum" for them - essentially, a variety of easels and cardboard boxes on which the kids can paint, then walk each other through, admiring their work. Sometimes there is an installment involving yarn or clay or Mardi Gras beads, we mix up the media on occasion, but certain aspects remain the same. This is something we do often enough that the crew has developed specific parameters for "art museum."
This particular experience often involves painting one's own hands, arms and legs (and on one occasion, hair).
It never involves painting others. Until this time.
The kids pictured were determined to use the faces and bodies of their fellow artists as their primary canvases.
They tested their peers' desire to be a work of art in a meticulous and scientific fashion - walking from child to child, boldly swabbing a paintbrush across the other kid's face or shirt, then watching their reaction. No one liked it. Everyone responded with a firm NO and/ or tears. I began to feel that twitchy, anxious urge to step in. THEY WERE UPSETTING THE OTHER KIDS. NO ONE LIKES THIS. SHOULD I ALLOW IT? I ran around wiping paint off teary faces and fighting the urge to say something teacher-y like "Paint stays on the paper" or "We don't paint our friends."
Then they found each other.
They enjoyed both bestowing and receiving bright, paint-y stripes. They giggled and practically shook with glee. The experience was pure joy for both of them.
I was glad I stepped back and waited.
There are valuable lessons here, too, that were easier to see when I stepped back and watched and allowed things to unfold.
Sometimes we want to do things that others don't. This is fine as long as we aren't pushing our choices on them. It's fine to paint your own body. But if you want to paint someone else, they might not like it. If they say NO or show with their tears or body language or facial expression that they aren't into it, you walk away. You stop.
They did that. They respected their peers' wishes every time. Every. Time.
Look, these are two and three year olds. This is a BIG deal. This is years of hard work, both with me at playschool and at home with their parents. We've worked hard with guiding them on this journey, on teaching them the language of consent. This has been an interesting journey, too, with stand out moments such as a child responding "YES! YES HITTING!" when asked if she liked being hit, and then excitedly organizing an impromptu and surprisingly respectful and controlled "Hit Party" that lasted much of one morning, but, frankly, that deserves it's own post another time.
I spend a great deal of time saying things like, "I know you really, really want to touch him right now but I hear him saying NO. It's his body. He says no."
It's not always easy and I'm not always successful, because, developmentally, these concepts are still very, very hard for these guys. They're getting it, though.
I could manage their actions in ways that avoided conflict. I could scurry about the yard shouting things like "Paint goes on the paper!" and "Sticks stay on the ground!"
I could even be "positive" and say those things sweetly instead of shouting.
But here's the thing: I'm in the business of helping small people grow up to be their absolute best, of loving them for exactly who they are and helping them develop the skills they'll need to be valuable members of adult society some day. Their parents trust me to do that - to do the very best by these little people that are their hearts, their everything.
I'm not here to make sure things look neat and orderly in the moment. Learning and growing are MESSY, they're LOUD, they involve conflict.
In moments like these - moments where children paint each others' faces or carry around sticks that are way too big or decide that, yes, hitting is fun ("carefully," by the way, "not too hard" and only "nice hits) - they are gaining skills that will help build a foundation of empathy, of self- control, of critical thinking. Children who are given the power to make these choices, who are trusted to test themselves in these ways, learn to self-regulate and to read the emotions of their playmates.
They learn to pay attention to what their peers enjoy and what they dislike, and since one of the principles of authentic play is that anyone is free to leave at any time, they regulate their play so that their playmates want to stay and continue. They learn the language of consent.
Through these kinds of interactions, the kids are also learning that they are powerful, they are brave, that their own ideas have merit. They don't constantly need to look to someone else to tell them what the right choice is. They are learning to trust their own instincts and to puzzle out what the right choice might be. This is huge.
This is what builds strong citizens, strong humans.
We are growing people who do the right thing, even when no one is watching.