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Boys Only Ice Cream

Boys Only Ice Cream

“Boys only ice cream! Boys only ice cream!” a child called out. Ice cream shops are part of outside play for Opal Beginning School. One of our outside destinations is a beautiful woven twig sculpture with lots of little windows that turn into many things – but most commonly it transforms into an ice cream shop.

“Can I buy ice cream here?” I ask the child.
“No. I said boy ice cream,” Child 1 answers.
Child 2 hands me a pinecone immediately. “Here you go.”
I thank him and pretend to eat the pinecone ice cream.
Child 3 says to him, “Come on! Let’s have another ice cream stand.”
They run to a close by stick hut, “Girls only ice cream! Girls only ice cream!,” they yell. I walk over to the new shop, pay my bark chip, and buy an ice cream there. I ask them why they started the new shop.
“Because that wasn’t girl ice cream,” Child 3 replies.
“What if a boy comes here?” I ask.
“They can get it,“ Child 3 says.
“What did you think when you heard ‘boys only ice cream’?” I ask.
“That was sad because if it’s boys only, girls couldn’t get any,” Child 3 answers.
“Why did you start this new ice cream shop?” I ask.
“Because I was afraid girls couldn’t get any ice cream,’” Child 3 says.
“What happens if a boy comes here and wants ice cream?” I ask him.
“Only girls and boys ice cream! Only girls and boys ice cream!” Child 3 shouts.
I interpreted that these two boys were taking action to solve the injustice that they saw. I was curious what the rest of our class might think.

I know that it is not uncommon for children to play with issues of exclusion as they are figuring out their place in the world. These children were exploring their identities and their understanding of themselves in relationship to others. I wasn’t worried that they harbored deep biases – but I knew that I wanted to challenge their thinking. I had been wondering how to provoke deeper empathy and to develop an idea of standing up for what is fair in my work with these three-, four-, and five-year-olds. How strong were these capacities already within them? I wanted to invite the children to think about this “boys only” idea with me. I wanted to provoke their thinking with some questions. I didn’t want to tell the children what to think, but I wanted them to have the chance to really examine their feelings about the fairness of this issue.  How would they feel about this? Would they care? I wondered if this problem could be the start of a rich and meaningful conversation.

I decided to bring puppets to one of our class meetings, as I know how engaging and playful puppets can be for them.  I hoped the puppets would allow them to explore their thinking about the “boys only” idea while also allowing me to remove the issue a few degrees from the child who started it.  I did not want him to feel shamed or put on the spot.

At our gathering, the squirrel puppet builds a shop out of blocks. He calls out that donuts are for sale for boys only. The butterfly puppet flies up singing. She sings that she loves life, she loves everything, she loves boys, she loves girls, and she loves being a girl. She stops to buy a donut – and is turned away. Squirrel announces that this is a boys only donut shop.

Almost every child immediately has something to say about this.
Child 4 gets up. He shared that he wants to hug and kiss Butterfly and he wants to punch Squirrel.
“Give him a boy donut!” Child 5 calls.
“She could have one. There is not only one kind of donuts that we eat,” Child 5 says.
“We could make some more,” Child 6 offers.
“Girl donuts!” Child 5 says.
“Why?” Kimie asks.
“Because that would be helpful!” Child 5 says.
“Maybe he could make boy and girl donuts so that Butterfly is a girl and she could eat these donuts,” Child 4 says.
“Maybe they could split a donut,” Child 1 says. Child 1, you’ll remember, originated the “boy only” donut shop outside.
“He could make a girl donut with whip cream and chocolate,” says Child 2.
In the moment, I could hear how these children really want to make sure Butterfly got a donut, too. They felt this was unfair and they wanted to fix it.

“Maybe Butterfly could make her own donuts,” says Child 7. This proposal would have Butterfly take the problem in her own hands (wings) to solve it.

“There is not ‘boy donuts’ and ‘girl donuts’ – there is only flavors of them,” says Child 5.
“There was a boy and girl one, because my dad comes with me and my mom comes with me when we’re having a playdate and we all get a donut,” says Child 8.
“Yes, they can have it with chocolate on it.  My mom got one,” says Child 2.
These children are connecting what they know from their own life experiences to these puppets’ experiences as a way to make meaning of the situation and offer other possibilities, comparing the puppet show and provocation to real life and noticing that it is not the way they know things to work.

“What do you think about a donut shop that says, ‘You can’t have one if you have brown hair, or are a girl, or a boy’?” I ask them.
“I hope that would never happen because my mom has brown hair,” says Child 5.
“All donut shops are allowed for everyone in this whole wide world,” Child 9 proclaims.
“Maybe you could ask them, ‘Please don’t do that, Squirrel, because it hurts her feelings,’” says Child 10.
“What if I don’t care about that?” Squirrel asks.
“Well, then you need to go home and not sell them anymore. I don’t like that kind of shop,” says Child 11.

In reflecting after the meeting, I was delighted by how engaged and impassioned the children were during the meeting. Virtually every child spoke. So many had ideas to offer that I couldn’t call on them quickly enough. They showed their caring by offering an impressively wide range of different connections, reactions, and solutions to the problem. I was reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

After our puppet show meeting, there are lots of ice cream shops on the playground. The child who began the idea of the boys only ice cream shop is yelling, “Ice cream! Ice cream!”  He tells me that he is selling ice cream for everyone today.

This experience leaves me excited and continuing to reflect on many questions:

  • How can conversations like these allow children to explore and reveal their understanding of complex issues of equality, equity, and social justice?
  • How can we continue to explore these ideas with the children in a way that feels playful and challenges their working theories of the world?
  • What do the children reveal to us about their capacity for compassion and empathy in these conversations? What do we miss out on when we don’t engineer these dialogues when the children create the opportunities?
  • How can we help inspire children to take action when things are unfair – not just for themselves but also for others?
January 20, 2017

3 responses to “Boys Only Ice Cream

  1. Thanks for sharing this story, Amy. That this post went up the same day as so many people marched in support of women’s rights – and against sexism – seems significant. I admire how you were able to respond to the situation with understanding – and to use play to nudge the children to see broader possibilities.

  2. I love that you highlight that while you weren’t concerned, you wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on what happened and by doing so deepen understanding and empathy. I admire how you worked to make sure the children didn’t feel shame or that they had to stop or change their game, but instead, you gave them a new way to examine what was happening, which then inspired a shift; a shift to celebrate! Thank you, Amy.

  3. I appreciate “squirrel’s” response to the idea that it might hurt someone’s feelings, and that the question was posed, “What if I don’t care about that?” That is often a response we encounter in life, and a glimpse into the empathy preschool-age children are still trying to wrap their minds around. I love the idea that one child offered about not liking that kind of shop. I think it reminds us how hard it is to connect with someone who has a very fixed mindset about something, and there only being one way. I’m also delighted by how many different ideas were offered as solutions. They were really doing some hard thinking!

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