As some of my readers may know, my daughter Brontë is enrolled in a cooperative local preschool that requires a parent to work a supervisory shift every week. So I spend every Wednesday helping other parents look after about thirty children under five.
This place is all about letting kids learn social skills, through independent negotiation, and building creativity by letting kids play without adults taking over. We aren’t supposed to interfere with anything the kids are doing, in fact, unless violence or property damage comes into play.
This can be tougher than it sounds, like the time a couple of boys kept knocking over another kid’s skyscraper and laughing. We also aren’t supposed to force kids to share, since it’s a tough concept for young children to grasp. Instead, we tell them to “wait their turn,” which kids seem to understand perfectly.
With the wait-your-turn policy working like magic, I figured this place must be onto something. Brontë has been thriving under the new regime, so John and I decided to put any preconceived notions aside and see how these new approaches played out.
But when Brontë started coming home chanting “NO GIRLS ALLOWED! NO GIRLS ALLOWED” for the past few weeks, my husband and I were perplexed. Why was she saying this? Does she know what it means? Did she just like the rhythm, or was she turning into some kind of Uncle Tom?
No, Brontë, no!
My husband found it particularly irritating, asking her “Where are you hearing that, Brontë? Why don’t you say ‘No boys allowed’ instead?” I think it’s charming when men become more sensitive after fathering daughters. Watching their own girls get pushed around has a way of exploding perspectives.
At any rate, someone was excluding John’s baby girl from something and he didn’t like it one bit. But who, and from what?
Well, yesterday I found out.
My shift involved watching the inside swing area, the lofts and the costume room–a little room with a bunch of costumes and a bunkbed in it. The lofts involve stairs that climb to two different play areas on the upper floor, with a hamster-like bridge running between them.
Above the bridge are two hammock-like bags, swinging on hooks, that kids can crawl into for playing or hiding. Two boys had crawled into the bags and were swinging back and forth, bumping each other and lobbing insults back and forth.
“You’re stupid!” one said.
“You’re a poo head!” the other shouted, while bumping the other kid in his bag.
“You SMELL LIKE FARTS!”
The boys were busily slamming into each other with their Insult Bags on the Hamster Bridge when a group of girls attempted to pass them. The girls wanted to get to the playhouse loft on the other side.
Popping his head out of the bag, Boy #1 yells, “You can’t walk here! Girls can’t cross!”
Boy #2 popped his head out too, shouting, “Yeah! NO GIRLS ALLOWED!”
There it is.
After this exchange, many of the supervising moms stopped what they were doing to watch the conflict brewing up above. Many fathers also work the observations shifts (because they are web developers or work from home or otherwise have jobs amenable to working preschool shifts), which I think is very cool, but most of the parents are still moms, who couldn’t help but notice the boys’ hostile takeover of prime preschool territory.
Yet because of the school’s non-interference policy, we felt powerless to intervene. Hmph… One mom suggested that the boys “let” the girls use the other staircase to reach the playhouse loft, as the rest of us quietly frowned.
The boys wouldn’t budge, however, continuing to shout “NO! NO GIRLS ALLOWED!” as the moms winced and quietly gathered about the scene.
Just then, a little girl pulled at my sleeve, asking if I could get her some blankets. Let’s call her “Alice.”
I like Alice. She’s scrappy and friendly. On Brontë’s first day at preschool, when she asked to ride a bike with one of the boys and was told to go away, Alice pedaled up and offered Brontë a seat on hers.
So, I took Alice to the blanket shelf and picked out a few puffy quilts to hand her. She said, “Thank you, that’s very nice. You’re allowed in my room” before walking off.
Hmm, what was she up to?
Returning to my post, I kept one eye on the intensifying Hamster Bridge conflict, and the other on Alice, who had walked back into the costume room. She had tucked a hanging blanket under the top mattress of the bunk bed, creating a hidden cubby space, and was busily stringing a quilt up on a clothesline that ran across the room, creating a makeshift wall.
A pack of girls started patrolling the preschool, grabbing any throw pillows or soft bags they could find. They dragged them to the costume room, where they carefully arranged them on the bed and around the room.
This confirms my long-held suspicion about the nature of throw pillows: they are just a way to mark female territory. Think about it… they don’t really serve any function apart from screaming “THIS IS A GIRL SPACE” to any passers-by.
Next, Alice started building a block wall in the doorway.
She built it up as far as she could reach before grabbing a step-stool to build it up even further. I was impressed by her ingenuity: it looked like a brick wall blocking off the door that almost went all the way to the top. She walked back to the inside of the costume room and placed the step-stool by her wall, so that girls could peer over the top of it.
By this point, a bunch of girls had gathered in the costume room and the boys were getting curious about the goings-on inside. A pack of boys had gathered outside the wall and were asking to come in.
Alice popped her blonde head over the top of the wall, and looking down, shouted, “NO! NO BOYS ALLOWED!”
Angry murmuring spread across the pack of boys gathered outside the wall. “Let us in!” they shouted, “”We’re gonna sue you!”
It cracked me up, since I’m sure that toddlers have no idea what it means to sue someone, apart from it being something you threaten people with when they’re doing something you don’t like.
As tension mounted at the girl’s wall, Brontë passed by and another girl popped her head out, saying “YOU can come in if you want.” Brontë grinned as she disappeared into the exclusive girl’s club forming behind the quilts to help arrange pillows.
It’s a shame we’re not allowed to take pictures of the kids inside the preschool. While I completely understand why that rule exists, I wish I could show you a snapshot of this amazing scene: a mob of two- to four-year-old boys, decked out in wooly winter hats, shaking mittened fists at a a wooden puzzle wall as a blonde girl shouted at them from above.
Meanwhile, boys were still swinging back and forth in their Gorilla Fart Bags on the bridge, where a couple girls were still demanding easement rights. “NO!” the boys were yelling, “NO GIRLS CAN CROSS!”
“YES WE CAN!” the girls yelled back, “WE CAN GO WHERE WE WANT!”
Hmm, interesting. I guess there are multiple potential strategies to pursue when confronted by social exclusion: you can either form your own exclusive club, trying to make it even better than the one that excluded you, or keep trying to negotiate passage rights. These girls were attempting both.
Of course, many of the boys blocked out of the costume room had nothing to do with the bridge conflict, and therein lies the dilemma of group warfare, yes?
Just then, I heard the loud noise of the block wall being demolished by the boys. They started to flood the costume room while Alice waved her arms around, yelling “Noooo! You guys GET OUT!”
Then a boy smacked Alice in the face, and she erupted into howling tears.
That was it. The moms gave each other sideways glances while silently mobilizing a covert rescue mission.
One mom ran over to grab the offender, sharply telling him that she wouldn’t let him hurt another kid, that it’s never okay to do that, as the others pitched in to reassemble the Block Wall. Technically, we weren’t supposed to interfere with toy construction, but something about watching the girls’ scrappy little spirits crumble beneath threats of brute strength was more than we could stand.
We quietly circled our wagons around the costume room and every boy who tried to enter it was told “The girls need their space right now. Leave them alone for a while.” The girls played happily in their fort, where they immediately began to establish a top-bunk and bottom-bunk hierarchy in their mini- queendom.
Later, one of the teachers stomped up, yanked the quilt down, and started putting the blocks away, as the little girls watched in horror. “I don’t like this wall,” she said, “I don’t care for all this privacy.”
The moms furrowed their eyebrows… what the heck? We’d been guarding that little sanctuary for the past hour.
At the close of the day, all the kids were called into the main room to celebrate a birthday. Everyone sat down together, boys and girls alike, to grab a cupcake and sing “Happy Birthday” to the blushing little girl who was turning the Big Four. The kids all had fun cramming glittery pink cupcakes in their mouths before running outside together to ride bikes and swing until their parents came to grab them.
I guess food brings people together. Wouldn’t it be nice if things worked out like this in adult society? We could be throwing Molotov cocktails in the middle of some civil strife or armed conflict, when someone busts out a bunch of cupcakes and suddenly everyone’s singing together while stuffing their faces.
I’ll be curious to see the fallout of the battle of the sexes that broke out at the preschool yesterday, whether it happens again, or if retaliation on the girls’ part will enforce a truce based on unspoken threats of mutual destruction.
So far, the girls who participated seem to be getting along better, at least. Perhaps they bonded after fighting on the same team, like war buddies respectfully acknowledging the dark times they shared. They are handing each other snacks and sharing their toys more often, which I take as a good sign.
And Brontë still plays with the boys, but now she has some girlfriends too. When I asked how she liked school today, she said, “Fun. I ride bikes with Jason, and Olivia give me a candy.”
“That’s good, you’re making friends!”
“Yes,” she tells me, “And Alice is my favorite. Her my best friend.”
Good idea, Brontë. I think Alice is someone you want on your team.