Lately we've been thinking a lot about rules within the Shop of Possibilities. Since we've opened we've had a laminated set of 'rules' on the wall which the children helped create back in June 2012. Looking at those rules and then looking at the range of different play that happens in the space we were starting to question the relevance and importance of these within the play space.
The rules were:
We have fun
We are nice to each other
We play nicely together
We respect each other
We tidy up after ourselves
We don’t throw things
We don’t use swear words
We don’t shout at each other
We don’t fight with each other
We don’t take things home
We listen to each other
We help each other
Whilst these on the surface all look like perfectly good and sensible rules to have in a children's play environment, when you look a bit closer do they actually get enforced and if they are then does this actually restrict certain types of play? Should there be times when it is ok to shout at each other or to fight with each other? If you have seen some of our previous posts then you'll know that rough play has been a significant theme in some of our artist projects. So rather than enforcing the 'No Fighting' rule we have stood at a distance, observed and supported this type of play regardless of the rule that was stuck up on the rule throughout this time.
Similarly conflict is another theme that crops up again and again, and as a team we choose to support the children in solving their own conflicts rather than jumping in to solve them on their behalves. So whilst we would all encourage children to listen to each other, play nicely together, share and help each other we also understand that often play involves the opposite to this, sometimes people (and children) just aren't nice to each other. Arguments over who had what first, disputes over someone not being allowed to join in a game won't lead to punishment or being sent home so therefore why are these rules laminated as if set in stone?
These conversations were sparked by something Stuart Lester (Senior Lecturer in Playwork at the University of Gloucestershire) wrote in a pack to accompany a recent Playwork training course, about how "A list of prescriptions (although well intended) generally fail to acknowledge the nature of children's play, and how children play with each other." From this we decided to look over our rules as a team to see whether there was an alternative to the laminated rules.
After discussions, which generally leaned towards the staff being keen to not scrap the rules entirely, we went through each rule one by one asking ourselves whether we'd make a point of enforcing the rule if we saw it being broken. Most of the time it was a 'no' or it was too grey an area to decide upon. Basically each child is different, each day is different, so fighting one day could be playful and unnecessary for an adult to step in, however the next day is could be aggressive meaning that intervention is needed. By saying 'No fighting' or 'No shouting' are we not just stopping certain types of play before it even begins? I especially feel this for some of the more cautious children who wouldn't like to feel as though they are breaking a rule.
So we decided to try something different, and I suggested a blackboard rule board which we put on an easily accessible wall in the space. I wanted it to be something that invites edits, changes and additions over a period of time. Left blank initially, the children were free to add their own rules as they thought of them. Straight away the usual stuff appeared:
Then about ten minutes later one of the children (who had written most of the new rules) started shouting incredibly loudly. Headache inducing loudly. So I called him over to the rule board and asked what the first rule said. He repeated it back to me 'No shouting' and thought for a moment. He then dashed off into the bathroom and came back with a piece of tissue paper and went about jumping and rubbing off his first rule:
This meant he could go about his shouting some more without breaking the rules. Genius!
This adaptable, changing, editable set of rules feels much more sympathetic to the kind of space that the Shop of Possibilities is. It gives the children more control over their space, but also implies that there is still a shared ethos behind the (sometimes) chaos.
Perhaps next week the 'No Shouting' rule will even reappear...