Mean Games

The social dynamics of first grade children are not for the faint of heart.  All the things grown-ups do to each other–the exclusions, the slights, the physical violence–are present in our six year olds as they work the whole thing out.  Last month, one of my more troubled children came to me to report that the children he hung out with were playing a game.  “It’s called ‘torture’, and they take turns pushing me against the wall.”  “Do you like to play that game with them?”  “I left, but one boy chased me.”

The most heartbreaking thing of several dozen heartbreaking things in this scenario: these are genuinely not ‘bad’ kids, any of them.  None of them wake up in the morning with the desire to do another kid irreparable harm.  They are acting from what they see in action movies and cartoons, and they are acting from shared human anxieties about membership in a group.  When my guy stayed away, the other kids rearranged themselves and someone else got pushed against the wall some more; sometimes, a kid volunteers to be the one on the wall.  After a pretty thorough investigation which revealed that my student was far from the only one to fall on the pointy end of this particular social stick, we’ve pinpointed the parts of the yard where these kind of interactions seem to happen and increased our active surveillance of these areas.  But of course, adult supervision is only part of the solution.  Our students need to be told, at a level that’s appropriate for their level of development, that an unfortunate human tendency is to play in ways that cause harm to other people, and they need to have tools to stand up against that tendency. The three first grade teachers graciously allowed me to work in all three classes to start building those tools.

Whenever I deliver any content in any classroom that isn’t a math lesson, I like to start by reading a book–somehow, engaging with my audience in someone else’s story helps all of us get ready to tell one, ourselves. This time, I anchored my lesson in Bootsie Barker Bites, by Barbara Bottner. It’s short on nuance, but the statement’s worth making: it’s possibly to thwart a bully without, well, becoming a bully.


I stop at the point where Bootsie’s mother observes that it’s so very nice that the girls are good friends (illustration–Bootsie dragging our hapless narrator to her room by her pigtail.)  “Good readers try hard to understand what they’re reading, and there’s something I just don’t understand about this.” We talk, as a group, about what good friends do, and I have the students sort various behaviors into two categories: “A Good Friend” and “Maybe a Problem”.  We are using the story for some of our ideas, but I also pull from the world of the recess yard, making it clear that a good friend, for example, “asks” if the others want to play a certain game, and that it’s “maybe a problem” if there’s hitting involved.  One of the biggest playground challenges isn’t in the book, but I bring it up under this context.  “When two kids, or more than two kids, decide together that they will do something unfriendly to somebody else–whether it’s hitting that person, or teasing him, or trying to make him angry–we can think of that as “targeting.”  And it’s not ‘maybe a problem’, exactly–it’s definitely a problem, and it’s one we have to solve.”  Together, we decide that Bootsie’s actions aren’t those of a ‘good friend’: I am clear to say, though, that maybe she COULD be a good friend, some day.  “Right now, in this story, we don’t have two good friends.  That’s not how the author describes it.  So far, the little girl has tried a number of good friend things to do, and Bootsie has stayed here, at “maybe a problem.”  What do you think ought to happen next?”
photo (1)

I let the students think a bit and make their own predictions, and then we get back to the story, with Bootsie’s usual shenanigans and the narrator not being able to do much of anything for that visit.  She comforts herself with night-time revenge fantasies of Bootsie falling off the side of the world–‘I try to save her, but I’m just too late’, but in the morning, she does what I want my students to do.  Told by her mother that Bootsie will be joining them for a weekend-long playdate, the narrator comes clean about Maybe A Problem.  “‘Bootsie Barker is a DINOSAUR!!!’ I shout.  ‘And she’s planning to eat me alive!'”  I tell the students, “Now, that part isn’t true, exactly, is it?  But there’s something really true, and really important, in what she’s saying.  She’s saying she doesn’t like the way Bootsie plays with her, the way Bootsie makes her play.  She’s saying it doesn’t feel safe to her.  And I need you all to understand something: it is absolutely the right thing to do to tell a grown-up about it, if something like that ever happens to you.  That isn’t tattling.  That’s telling.  And telling is important, when things don’t feel safe.”

In Teacher Beth Land, this kind of revelation leads to supervised playdates, but Bootsie Barker lives in a more permissive world.  The narrator’s mother counsels her daughter, “Tell Bootsie you don’t want to play that game,” and the little girl thinks about what to do next.

At that point, I stop the reading again, and ask the kids to imagine that they are the little girl in the story.  We think-pair-share about what we’d do in her place, with myself and the classroom teacher listening in.  Some kids say they’d just refuse to play with her; others say they’d try to play something else.  There’s usually a kid or two who says some variation on the theme of kicking Bootsie’s behind–“I’d be just as mean as she was, to make her scared of me.”  Sometimes, I do a poll, having students close their eyes first to remove the peer influence.  “How many of you think the little girl should solve her problem by acting the way Bootsie has been acting?”  “How many of you think there’s another way to do it?”  Usually, the peacemakers outnumber the proponents of eye-for-eye, and that gives us as adults a bit of information about who we might want to check in with at another time.  If there’s time, I ask a couple volunteers to share their thinking, calling, I must admit, only on those who voted not to clobber.

I tell the group that I noticed something interesting during my poll–“Most of you think that the girl can solve her problem without acting like Bootsie acts. I think that makes a lot of sense, and I’d like to tell you why.”  I flip through the pictures we’ve seen so far, pointing out that Bootsie has not been a good friend.  “Right now, in this story, we have something that’s a problem.  We have, well, to be honest, we have a mean kid.  How many mean kids do we have so far?  Show me on your fingers.”  The students raise one finger.  “You’re right.  We have one mean kid, and that’s a problem.  Now, let’s imagine that the little girl decides to be like Bootsie.  Let’s imagine that she grabs Bootsie’s hair, and covers her mouth, and tries to play games that she knows will scare Bootsie.  Then, how many kids will be doing mean things?” Two fingers.  “I think one mean kid is more than I’d like to have.  I think we can try to have just one, or fewer, because the honest truth is that being mean doesn’t usually feel very good, if you’re not a mean person.  I don’t think the little girl wants to be a mean person, and I don’t think any of you do, either.  So let’s see if there are other ways to solve the problem, here.”


Our heroine prevails with the use of a well-timed big word and a bit of shadow-puppet help from her salamander friend.  When I read this, I point out that just as important as the little girl’s words is the way in which she delivers them–standing straight and firm, like a tree, with a strong voice that isn’t yelling each of her words, and a face that is kind, but not fearful.  It’s a tall order, to be sure, and a very big part of why adults are on the yard is that we can be present when a child takes this assertion step–we can roleplay in advance, gather the student to whom the message needs delivering and establish ground rules, or intervene ourselves directly if the situation warrants.  Rarely in real life do things wrap up quite this tidily, with one simple statement being enough to send the bully away in tears forevermore, and I’m pretty honest at letting the kids know that we can’t really expect that.  “But we can expect that things can get better.  If someone is trying to play mean games with you, whether they’re doing it to you, or trying to get you to do it to other people, it’s always right to speak up, and say, ‘I won’t play mean games.’   You can say it to the person, you can say it to a grown-up.  You can say it to both.  We know how good friends act.  We aren’t Bootsie Barker.”

I interrupt my soapbox to read the last three pages, which I’ve reserved until I’ve delivered my homily.  We learn that Bootsie was so frustrated by not getting her way that her parents had to bring her to Boston after all, so the narrator doesn’t have to imagine her getting launched on a rocket to the moon.

“Although if she does, that’s all right with me.”  On the very last page, a cartoon Bootsie takes a bite out of the moon itself, getting a good laugh from everyone before I put the book away.  I will revisit the story one on one with several students in the days that follow.  IMG_8231

One little girl, in the group discussion, simply could not get past her initial understanding, that there are only two ways to be in the social world.  One can be nice, or one can be mean–and if you try nice, but get ‘mean’ back, well, you’ve gotta turn the mean switch on yourself.  She’s not ready, exactly, for the language I want to give her–the difference between “assertive” and “aggressive”, for example.  We look through the pictures together, slowly, and I emphasize that the little girl’s actions at the end of the book were brave and effective, but neither ‘nice’ nor ‘mean’.   She journals about it for three pages, and seems to find an answer that works for her.

I intervene with a group of boys later in the week, when it looks as though a ‘mean game’ is about to develop.  One quickly suggests a different way to play as a group, another walks away and finds a basketball.  Throughout the days to come, the first grade teachers check in with their whole classes during community meeting time, discussing what games people played and how they got along.  I check at the end of the week with the boy whose report started this discussion, and he reports that recess has been better ‘so far.’

“So far” is the tricky thing about it, really–we have an unfortunate tendency to believe that one intervention can fix something as multifaceted and timeless as mean games on the playground. It won’t, of course.

But I think it’s a start.


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One Response to Mean Games

  1. Diane Dew says:

    Brilliant, as always. The first grade teachers at your school are so lucky to have the opportunity to “allow” you to intervene like this, not to mention the students.

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