Another example of trouble on the playground is that of my old friend, “Jack” (5-years old), who claims “George” – somewhat unilaterally – as his best friend. George is very socially competent and frequently pairs up with another socially skilled child, “Polly”, on the playground to create elaborate pretend games that are a little beyond Jack at the moment. To help you understand what Jack is up against, I will give you an illustration of one of these games. The bear hunters search the playground for bears that they plan to catch and eat. When they find one (invisible to me) they “freeze” him with a “freeze gun” that derives from a game on a previous day. Suddenly, Polly – apparently having a crisis of conscience – declares that they really shouldn’t hunt bears because they might look like teddy bears. They should hunt lions instead. This change in itself could throw a child like Jack off. If he had been distracted (as he often is) and missed the shift in target of the hunters, he might refer inappropriately to “bears”, and attract the criticism or even scorn of his playmates. (“Bears!? We aren’t hunting bears!” – a 5-yo would not be likely to explain, “We used to be hunting bears, but now we are hunting lions.”) At any rate, the children race after the lions and point their freeze guns at one in the bushes when, suddenly, Polly again seems to feel conflicted and declares that a “friendly trap” is a better idea. Since Polly was in the position of leader at this point and George was backing her up, the group readily agreed and pointed out the location of the trap on the ground near the bench. If Jack had caught up with the play at this point and had tried to rejoin them he might have unwittingly stepped into the trap and earned the opprobrium of the other hunters or – worse – he might have been commanded to “be the lion” and stay in the trap for the rest of the playground time.
This situation calls for adult intervention. On the playground of this preschool – contrary to many elementary schools, particularly – the real teachers (not “recess monitors” – the name tells it all) are on the playground to help the children negotiate social situations. I watched these skilled teachers support Jack. One of them tried to help him keep track of what was going on so that he would not get left behind. When finally that did not work, she helped him begin a play with another child – equally intelligent but at a similar level of social adeptness – with whom eventually he found a happy alternative.