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Transcript: Different Ways to Play
Welcome to the People Safety Podcast from Kidpower, teaching advocacy, boundary setting, and other personal safety skills for building happier lives and stronger relationships! I’m Erika Leonard with another Kidpower People Safety Tip.
One day, I was taking care of a boy – I’ll call him Chris. Chris and I were at a park with a play structure, swings, a big, sandy area… Chris was having a good time on the play structure, and I was sitting on a bench in the shade. Suddenly, Chris came up to me very upset about another boy at the park, a stranger to him – the two had never met at the park or anywhere else before. Chris said this boy was grabbing him and being mean.
I told Chris that he’d done a good job taking care of himself by using his power to move away from the possible problem and to get help, and of course I told him I would help him. At the same time, I was interested, because I had also seen this boy Chris was talking about — let’s call him Trey. It was hard NOT to notice Trey as he ran and sang and jumped and rolled around laughing in the sand. I was interested in what Trey was doing that felt mean and upsetting, when, from where I sat on the bench, he seemed so happy?
I knew needed to watch and think in order to be really helpful. It didn’t take me long to get a much clearer picture of the problem: it was not hard to see that Trey and Chris had very different ways of initiating play. That means that they had different ways of using the power of their bodies and their voices to try to start a game with a friend, or with a possible new friend.
When people have very similar ways of initiating play, sometimes they can go from being strangers to each other to feeling like the very best of friends in just a few minutes – maybe you’ve actually felt this before. When people have very different ways of initiating play, they can end up confusing or upsetting each other really, really quickly.
What I knew about Chris was that most of the time, his first step in playing with a new kid at the park was to play sort of close by, and slowly, their side-by-side activity would become something that they were doing together. A lot of times, Chris would already be building an entire city out of sand with another kid before they had actually started using words to talk to each other. Even after he would start talking to a new friend, Chris would still keep some space with his body – he didn’t touch other kids to play, like to tackle or to tickle or to roughhouse, until he knew them really, really well.
Now, Trey was a stranger to us both, so I don’t know anything about how he played most of the time. But, as I watched Trey, I imagined it was possible he lived in a home with lots of kids making lots of noise and playing lots of active games. A lot of the time, Trey initiated play by using touch, along with a really big smile and a very loud voice.
Chris and I sat together on the bench, and we watched Trey and the other kids. I pointed out what I saw: that Trey was using really big movements, a big voice, and a big smile. He would touch people’s arms. Once, he ran by a baby playing with her dad in the sand. He suddenly stopped, smiled at the baby and the dad, and they both smiled at him, and suddenly he patted the baby gently on the head. Then, he was off and running again. Once he grabbed a child’s shirt and yelled, “let’s go swing!” The child smiled and grabbed him right back, and they raced to the swing.
It was the grabbing that Chris did not like, and it was the biggest part of why he thought Trey was being mean. Chris knew I would help him set boundaries around the grabbing: he deserved to play at the park without being grabbed. But, at the same time, as we talked and watched, Chris was able to see that when Trey was grabbing, he was not trying to be hurtful.
Just like kids, adults and teenagers try to start friendships in different ways. This can sometimes be confusing no matter how old you are. Adults can help young people learn about this by noticing the differences, describing what they are noticing in very simple terms, supporting kids in making choices that work well for them, and setting clear boundaries.
In some places, like at a school, adults can set boundaries for everyone on the playground – “No grabbing” or “No tackling,” for example. At a big park open to everyone in your neighborhood, though, it’s a little different and a little more complicated. Setting boundaries and making other choices at a place like this is easier when we practice not making assumptions about what people are feeling or what they’re intending but instead focus on noticing behavior – what they are actually doing – and setting boundaries around that.
Chris still didn’t want his own shirt grabbed, but he started to see that grabbing didn’t automatically mean that someone was being hurtful. Getting that assumption out of the way made Chris’ decision- making at the park that day much easier. Chris started smiling after watching Trey for a while. Then, he decided he wanted to go back out and play. After getting a little extra coaching from me setting boundaries like, “I want to play, but no grabbing,” he went back to the play structure. Chris and Trey actually figured out that they both loved to run and go down the slides, and they ended up having a really good time together – with no grabbing.
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