Positive Play: How intentional inclusion builds the foundation of healthy friendships!

So…is this just a normal part of childhood play?

Are these moments just childhood scenarios to help one become more resilient or to develop a “backbone”, as they used to say? As I dug further into the research, it became very apparent that some of these behaviors are normal; but plain and simple, rejection or exclusion feels lousy and can have a big impact on a child, sometimes into adolescence and adulthood.

C. Nathan DeWall, Ph.D.  a psychologist at the University of Kentucky explains in a recent review (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2011):

“Humans have a fundamental need to belong. Just as we have needs for food and water, we also have needs for positive and lasting relationships. This need is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history and has all sorts of consequences for modern psychological processes. Social rejection increases anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy and sadness. It reduces performance on difficult intellectual tasks, and can also contribute to aggression and poor impulse control.Physically, too, rejection takes a toll”

As Mark Leary, Ph.D. professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University states:

“a growing number of researchers, have turned their eyes toward this uncomfortable fact of life…as researchers have dug deeper into the roots of rejection, they’ve found surprising evidence that the pain of being excluded is not so different from the pain of physical injury. Rejection also has serious implications for an individual’s psychological state and for society in general. Social rejection can influence emotion, cognition and even physical health.”

Positive Play can be taught as early as 3 and 4 years old

At Virginia Chance School, we know that these types of behaviors can and will occur as young children (3 and 4-year-olds) are beginning to develop their social skills and learning to assert their independence through play, and we know these behaviors can cycle back during upper elementary levels of social play, as well. However, at VCS, we take exclusion very seriously, and understand the long-term impact for a child, at any age. To help combat this notion of rejection and to guide a foundation of positive play and inclusion, we firmly adhere to our VCS philosophy and our adherence to teaching and honoring the whole child.

The Intentional Inclusion Solution:

Through best-practice education methods based on the latest childhood psychology findings, we have refined a unique combination of in-school strategies to help develop and support the emotional growth of our students. Backed by our VCS philosophy tenets…we are intentional in the classroom setting to create a community of learners where each has a voice and each is accepted and engaged in a variety of opportunities to instill the belief of inclusion by:

  • Written classroom agreement (or rules) at the start of the year to set a tone of mutual respect and kindness
  • Weekly classroom meetings (under the guidance of Stephen Glenn resources) with an agenda where problems are stated that impact the whole group, and learners can offer solutions
  • Daily inclusion activities where learners have the opportunity to work with a variety of classmates in pairs or small groups, and can practice how to share ideas with one another and the art of compromise
  • Daily Morning Meetings and Closing Circles (from Responsive Classrooms Institute) to check the pulse of each student at the start and end of each day, to be intentional about greeting one another, and that each member of the classroom participates in an activity that encourages and supports a sense of community.

Virginia Chance School also follows the social rule of “You can’t say you can’t play.”

We are guided by Vivian Gussin Paley’s book, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, where she introduces a new social rule to her students—“You can’t say you can’t play” as an important social message and a rule of inclusion for her students.

Ms. Paley states:

“The classroom is not a private place. Just as there are rules governing a multitude of school behaviors, there should be a rule governing the right of all children to participate.”

Also, she believes children are often excluded from play out of habit rather than for any real reason. In other words, “exclusion is written into the game of play. And play, as we know, will soon be the game of life.”

See more about this powerful movement starting at 0:48 in the video below:


Finding a school that supports and encourages positive play in early childhood education and into elementary can have a profoundly positive impact on children’s lives as they grow.

At home you can use these strategies to encourage inclusion:

  • Teach that all deserve dignity and respect, by watching your words and reactions toward others.
  • Model openness and receptivity that your children can emulate.
  • Take yourself out of the equation. Pay attention to what your child needs. If they need you to intervene, you will do a better job if your approach is parental and calm, not personal.
  • Avoid over-reacting. Pay close attention and make sure that what looks like teasing to you, may be a fun moment in a game. Also, sometimes playing solo is just what a child wants and needs at the moment.
  • Show your child how to share, to be civil, and to engage others. Practice with them!
  • Take a situation that didn’t go well and re-enact it; show your child how to make the ending better. Rewrite it!
  • Tell them if they can do it with you, they can try it with anybody.

Taken from the post called: “Odd Kid Out” by Alice Kaltman, LCSW

For more information:

Help Your Child Play Nice

Handling Aggression in Children

Social/Emotional Learning-SEL Venn Diagram