Wrestling was a regular feature of our curriculum at Woodland Park. Of course, it happened spontaneously, as it does in every preschool, but we would also sometimes throw down the gym mats and play in a pig pile. Before long, everyone who participated knew that crying was a part of wrestling, which is why we innovated the "crying chair." I would sometimes forget to set up the crying chair as we prepared to wrestle, but the children never did. The idea of the crying chair was that when someone got hurt, and someone always did, they could remove themselves from the action. The crying chair was the place to go until you were ready to return to the fray.
In some ways and for some children, the crying chair was the most important part of wrestling. Sometimes we had to set up a second or even third crying chair. Once we had an entire row of crying chairs while the gym mats were entirely vacated. This isn't to say there were a dozen kids crying. Some were, but others used the crying chair to stew in their anger. Others simply sat there looking sad. And there were always a few who used the crying chair to giggle and be silly. One girl who didn't like to wrestle would use the crying chair as a place to sit looking increasingly bored as she waited for her friends to be finished.
Over time, I began to see that the crying chair was being interpreted by the kids as a safe place to go and simply express emotions, whatever they were.
We all know that children tend to heal more quickly than adults. Their skin sometimes seems to mend as we watch. Even their bones heal far more rapidly. It's a blessing, of course, one for which we adults are required to compensate with experience, making us more capable and then, as we get older, more cautious when it comes to risk taking.
Indeed, children are master healers and not just when it comes to physical injury. We rightfully worry about the traumatic effects of certain impactful events on a child's life, but most children, most of the time, begin healing almost immediately if we leave them to their process. With our without a crying chair, they cry, they shout, they fully express their heartbreak or fear without holding back or, as we too often learn to do, stuffing it. As my friend Janet Lansbury (and presenter at our upcoming Play First Summit) points out, "Children are constantly healing themselves," which is how I came to view our crying chair: a place for self healing.
Of course, there are many exceptions to Janet's assertion, both in terms of physical as well as emotional injuries, but by and large, when given the time and space to express their feelings, and the loving support of adults who are there to listen, children are capable of healing themselves, often without scarring, and most assuredly with the result of having acquired wisdom. The sad truth is that as we age, our skin and bones change in ways that make healing a longer, more involved process. The same happens with our ability to heal emotionally, although I expect that this is more a matter of social conditioning than biology.
As a man, I know about stuffing my emotions. From a very young age, I began to learn the lesson that "big boys don't cry" even though I don't recall anyone saying those specific words to me. I doubt that many of the parents of the children I've taught at Woodland Park have said those words to their kids, but I see the beginnings of it as children approach four and five years old, when they begin to mask their emotions. For instance, there is no noticeable gender difference in infants when it comes to smiling, but by the time they are five, girls smile significantly more often than boys, an observation that is often used as an indicator of how young boys learn to suppress their negative emotions. But it's not just boys who learn to mask their feelings. Research indicates that preschool aged girls might smile more than their male peers, but often those smiles belie a "less acceptable" negative emotion underneath. In other words, we at least in part teach children of all genders, in both overt and subtle ways, to stop healing themselves emotionally.
Learning to express emotion is an important aspect of healthy social-emotional development. It is part of how we communicate, but also part of how we minimize the "scarring" that might result from social-emotional wounds. Few of us, however, are fully adept at emotional expression and this is probably why we struggle with it in our children, often shushing or bribing or shaming or otherwise discouraging "negative" emotions, because that is what we were taught -- even as we know intellectually they must express those feelings if they are to be emotionally healthy.
That said, even thought we ourselves are not experts, it doesn't mean that we can't support our children. The best crying chair in the world is a loved one's lap and most of the time that is all they need to heal themselves.
I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. We're working to find our distributor for Australia and New Zealand. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.
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