Playing on Our Children's Turf

It can be scary watching children play. I've been particularly distressed by the pervasive notion of "good guys" and "bad guys" in little boys' play. I get visions of future cold warriors and life-callous vigilantes growing before my very eyes. I talk with the boys about it, but it's probably much more helpful to get in there with them at play and offer more interesting and satisfying alternatives.

After all, it is through their play, to a great extent, that children try to make sense of their world. In order to continue to have access to our children's issues, to see how they are being affected by what they bring home from outside, to be able to influence how things are seen, interpreted, thought about, we have to be with our children during some of this processing time. If they do all their shoot-em-up games in the backyard (or all their Barbie play up in their rooms) then we're no longer players. But if we play too, we can choose our roles, offer new possibilities, consult with them about conflicting views, and have a context in which to talk with them about an incredible variety of important, values-laden issues.

I don't like to play their games. I'd much rather get my work done, or invite them to work on "productive" projects with me. But I know playing with them helps, so I try. I remember a time when I was well rewarded for that effort. I had joined the children in setting up the little "battle beasts" (cute little plastic animal-guys that are scripted for battle games). Andrew was, as a matter of course, arming his to the teeth. The children debated over who were the bad guys and who were the good guys; they were getting ready for the routine of war.

They wanted to know whether mine were good or bad. "They're good," I said, "but sometimes they do bad things." One of them pointed out that mine didn't have any weapons. "They must be karate battle beasts," he said. "No, mine don't fight that way. They don't try to knock people down; they try to change their minds," I responded.

I wasn't feeling real creative, but I did my best. My beasts turned into a cooking team that cooked up such delicious food that nobody who came near could think about anything except eating. Andrew decided that he would have a cooking team too. Then I set up a back-rub team, then a "wrestling and horsing around" team for my guys because they really wanted to use their bodes hard and challenge each other. Our teams started cooking up meals for the others and performing athletic feats.

At some point along the way, the little plastic dinosaur who had gotten into the game got knocked over, and Timothy decided that we needed to have a pet team too. He spent a batch of time working out various angles with the pet team, then asked us, "Hey, will some of your guys help mine find food for their pet?:" Naturally, our guys joined in, and the game, which had started out in the traditional good guy-bad guy formula, transformed into a cooperative search for earthworms in and under the cushions and covers.

I could have left them to play out the stereotypes by themselves (which I often do--and which probably won't turn them into monsters or ruin them for life). Or I could have moralized at them from a distance--or even used the weight of my authority to outlaw such games in my presence. This way, I had a chance to introduce new options and new ways of thinking--more interesting ones, I think--on their territory, and in their language.