I kiss my son goodbye and I stand at the fence watching him as he enters into the kindergarten school yard. I hope for another wave, but he pays no more attention to me. He drops his backpack near the place he is supposed to line up. Almost instantly he is greeted by a bevy of girls who chat with him for just a moment. Then he is off running wildly through the grass with another little boy. He is a citizen of his class and school. I am but a privileged outsider. I remain his confidant at home, but at school he is one of them. He must navigate his way through the Kindergarten Tribes on his own.
From eight in the morning, until two in the afternoon, five days a week, he is part of Room 3. They march together, break bread together, and learn together. Their life is regimented. Each moment inside the classroom is accounted for. Structure is imperative. Without structure the class would break out into chaos. Even with structure there is sometimes chaos.
Twice a day, during recess and lunch, however, the children of Room 3 are permitted free play time. Of course they have some play time in the classroom, but for safety and sanity that must be limited and more structured. I don’t think you can really call it true free play time. The true free play time comes when the children are released from the confines of their tiny classroom and marched to the wide open space of the kindergarten playground and set free.
I think it is only fair to note that my understanding of the playground tribes comes purely from my son’s accounts and perceptions. In the quiet of our kitchen he sits and tells me about his other life. He animatedly describes his adventures as a citizen of Room 3. He especially likes to talk about the playground tribes, but he swears me to secrecy. The information he relays to me is classified. The tribes pride themselves on protecting their secrets.
The story he weaves is about two tiny neighboring kingdoms known as Room 2 and Room 3. Each kingdom houses about 25 citizens. Twice a day these kingdoms merge on the playground. From this melding 5 main tribes with 5 distinct leaders have arisen: The Diggers, The Minecrafters, The Ballers, and The Superheroes and The Girls.
The Diggers are comprised of students who like to dig. They spend all or most of their free time in the sand area digging and building sand structures. There about 7 members of The Digger tribe.
The leader of The Diggers is a sweet boy with a round face and dark eyes. He hails from Room 3. In the classroom he is quiet and soft spoken. He follows the rules.
When my son tells me the names of the other diggers I recognize most of them. They run the gamut in terms of personalities. I am surprised that some of them would choose to be Diggers. For instance, one boy I envisioned as a Baller. He is big and strong and just looks like a wonderful athlete. The boy, however, is from Room 3 and The Baller leader is from Room 2. This may be why he chose to become a Digger.
Another boy seems ill-fit for the group. He is a beautiful child who is on the small side. The boy is legendary for his candor and his ability to spot weakness. His personality frightens some of the children. He seems out of place amongst some of the sensitive souls of the group.
My son was invited to join the Diggers by their leader, but he declined. He cited two main reasons for turning them down. The first reason he told me was the spitting. Some of The Diggers have developed a covert technique in which they leave the sand area, walk to the drinking fountain, and fill their mouths with drinking water. They then return to their excavation site and spit the water onto the sand. This must all be accomplished without being seen by an adult. The leader of The Diggers endorses and uses the spitting technique himself. The second reason, which I think has more validity, was that he dislikes one of the core members.
The Minecrafters are a small and very secretive tribe. There are only three core members. The Minecrafter’s leader is my son’s best friend from preschool. The Minecrafter leader and my son are still close, but my son has no interest in Minecraft. He has never played the game nor asked me for permission to play the game. Despite the closeness of my son and the leader of The Minecrafters my son has never been formally asked to become a Minecrafter.
The Minecrafters spend all their free time playing a school yard game they created that is based loosely on their experiences with Minecraft. In their game they build, they explore, and they fight. The game has been known to get a little rough and tumble. There have been injuries and complaints. The principal of the school recently banned the children from playing the game. For several days the children would sneak papers out of the classroom and just discuss Minecraft and other video games. Now they are back to playing their game but in secret.
The Ballers is the largest of the kindergarten tribes. There numbers are estimated to be close to 20 strong. Their leader is tall, athletic, and handsome. He is from Room 2, but happens to be my son’s friend from his preschool days. The boys get along fairly well most of the time. My son on occasion will play ball with them.
The Ballers tend to monopolize all the playground balls. They spend most of their free time crafting and playing games that use balls. A non-Baller may play ball with them only if granted permission by the leader. The non-Baller, however, must abide by the rules of The Baller Tribe. Games are not always played fair. Preferential treatment is given to tribe members.
The Ballers and The Girls both occupy the lawn area of the yard. On occasion, and seemingly without provocation, The Ballers will set aside their balls and chase The Girls. The Girls do not like this and sometimes it can lead to more serious conflicts.
The Superheroes are another small group. They number only 3. They spend their recess and lunch pretending to be superheroes. The worlds of Marvel and DC Comics collide easily and effortlessly on the playground.
The Girls are comprised of a sizable group of female students. Their leader is petite, shy, and sensitive. In my mind she is more of a wallflower than a prom queen. I am curious as to how she captured the role of tribal leader.
According to my son the primary function of The Girls is to talk. They are peaceful, but on occasion they are forced to defend themselves from The Ballers. I pushed for more information and that’s all he would say.
My son is not a member of any of the groups. He has chosen to remain tribeless. The tribeless number many. They tend to gather on the asphalt or on the playground equipment. They are free to play on swings, slide on the slide, jump rope, or ride the tricycles on the bike bath. This is their domain.
The tribeless have no child ruler. The camaraderie and the protection afforded by being a tribal member are conspicuously absent. Scuffles are not handled covertly and internally but are instead brought to benevolent adult overlords, known as yard duties, to decide and lay down adult minded judgments and punishments.
As the citizens of Room 2 and Room 3 attempt to navigate the playground jungle one can’t help but wonder what role the tribes will play in their future. The kindergarten playground is so small in comparison to the lands they will soon venture off to. Will The Ballers become jocks and the Minecrafters gamers? Perhaps the leader of the Girls will actually evolve from her wallflower form into that popular prom queen. Only time will tell. I only know that this is my son’s adventure. He must travel this treacherous and glorious road alone. I just get to sit in the quiet of our kitchen and listen to his stories.
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