Nuances of Consent

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As the older classroom explores power, strength, and physicality, their play is spreading across the entirety of the playground, involving nearly everyone including my classroom of younger students. While my classroom of younger children are excited to play along, they often become overwhelmed with the physical aspect. As the entire group of older children chase them, push them, and climb on top of them, they appear both happy and worried; excited yet tentative.

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On the playground Li and E were hiding in some trees. The older children would run up, yell and roar at them, sometimes pushing them further into the trees before running away. Again, they seemed conflicted. I tried a variance of a standard phrase, “Do you want to play this game with them” by adding, “or do you want to play something different with them?” They both said, “Something different with them!”

The younger children want to play with the older children, at any cost. If I only ask if they want to play, they will insist – yes, yes, they do! But their demeanor says otherwise. Eventually, the game explodes with emotions that had been building up over the course of the game. Here, the older children hold power over the younger children, and helping them have awareness of this power, and moving back to make space for the younger children is key.

Consent is more than yes or no, there are nuances to consider when facilitating situations with children requiring consent.

1. Active: A verbal, enthusiastic ‘yes’ must be given. Simply not hearing a protest is not consent.

2. Equal Power: If someone is vulnerable due to a power hierarchy, they might feel pressured to give consent. It is the responsibility of the person who holds the power to hold awareness of their position and act accordingly.

3. Choice: We must ensure there is no pressure to give consent, that the choices are clear, and that there will not be repercussions for not consenting.

4. Process: Consent requires an ongoing conversation to ensure an understanding of what is being consented to, the boundaries of each person, and if the consent is no longer given.

“Do you want to X.” doesn’t consider everything that is at play in a classroom. Children who are older, more confident, or charismatic in their play hold power over the younger, less sure children. Children who are new to a classroom, will hold less power than those who are comfortable in their space. Black children, especially black boys, will hold less power than white children due to racial biases already developed. 

D and O were engaged in a rough and tumble play, and D seemed to be a joyful participant. Eventually, more older children joined in, until the dynamic became overwhelming. D looked distressed, so I approached. He verbalized he no longer wanted to play that game. After, O would continuously ask D for permission to play, he would say yes, but then he would eventually become overwhelmed.  I facilitated by telling O that because he is older D may not feel like he can say no to a physical game he doesn’t truly want to play. I told him, “Perhaps instead of asking for permission, you can see what D likes to play, and join in.” As the afternoon progressed, D and O played a different game together, one that D initiated and O joined. It involved making train tracks in the mulch by dragging their feet in a long line. D took the lead, and O gave pointers here and there, as he has an extensive knowledge of trains. He never overpowered the play, and with the facilitation, he kept awareness of the power dynamics at play, moving out of the leader role he has by default, not by merit.

Considering the nuances of consent when assisting children through these moments is one thing, but breaking it down into actual phrases is another. Below are some example phrases that could be used to bring attention to the multiple aspects of consent. These basic examples would be altered to match the specific scenario and those involved. They can also be used to reflect on your own interactions with children and if they are in a position to consent to a scenario with you, such as a tickling match or being directed to hug a relative.

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Consent is more than seeking a yes or no, and thinking about how these nuances are involved in the classroom is going to be an area I am more intentional about moving forward, both in facilitating children interactions with each other, but also with my own interactions with children as an authority figure.


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