Many studies have shown that playtime is essential for children to learn and practice their social skills, but watching an interaction between children who have not yet learned to play well together can be anxiety-producing for the adult viewer.
Oftentimes, and especially in the case of bright children, we find ourselves watching a child who is an early speaker, or a quick thinker, running roughshod over her peers, directing the play without a thought for the preferences or feelings of the other children involved.
While it is certainly acceptable for adults to let children work through their issues on their own, it can be hard to watch. “Working through” this type of issue means that the children will keep playing until one of the slighted ones gets mad and likely communicates her feelings in a strident manner that hurts the first child’s feelings. Comments like, “Don’t be so bossy!” are likely to be thrown around, and the playtime may end abruptly. The overbearing child will certainly learn that adjusting her manner will gain her more positive interactions on the playground, but at the cost of her opinion of herself.
When we notice that a child is headed down this particular path, what can we do to help soften the blow? How can we teach her in a subtle way about interacting with other children, rather than with a (figurative) hammer to the head? Bright children are ready very early to discuss the reasons behind behaviors and expectations, but a direct discussion about playground etiquette can be misinterpreted by a young child as a dressing down. Luckily, there is a gentler and more indirect way to address this topic.
Puppets come in handy when it’s time to talk about difficult subjects, and they work splendidly to help children understand how to navigate tricky social waters. A parent or teacher can begin by voicing two puppets at once, illustrating a particular social interaction. She might say to a child, “My two friends here are having trouble with something. Can you help them?” Then, she can launch the puppets into a discussion about taking turns making up rules at playtime. Each puppet can describe exactly how they’re feeling, so the child can understand that the “bossy” puppet loves the creative process of leading the playtime, and the “upset” puppet feels as though no one appreciates her ideas.
After a brief back-and-forth between the puppets, the parent can ask the child, “What do you think (Puppet A) should do?” or “Why do you think (Puppet B) is sad?” She can also ask the child to draw parallels between the puppet’s situation and real life. “Have you ever seen anyone get sad on the playground?”
After the child has given her opinion, the parent can suggest ways to handle the situation as well. “Maybe (Puppet B) can say ‘I like your idea, but can we play my way too?’” Then, handing one puppet to the child, the parent can ask the child to role-play in several similar situations.
This gives the child a chance to 1) understand what feelings are behind her peers’ behavior and 2) practice handling potentially explosive situations without real explosions. Plus, puppet play means one-on-one playtime with a beloved adult. It’s a win-win situation!
Some tips for parents:
- Plan what you are going to say ahead of time.
- Let the puppets use real toys to enhance the sense of reality.
- Give each puppet both good and bad behaviors, to make sure the child doesn’t write off one puppet as an outlier, or “just a bad kid.”
- Tie everything back to real life by encouraging the child to think about how she would feel if she was in the “other person’s shoes.”
Research shows that giving our children strategies ahead of time is the best way to minimize conflict and discord in social situations.