The use of Slapstick in young children's education (online and offline)

Is our general approach of saying no to kids' violence and forcing them to say they're sorry actually (conciously or not) saying no to the development of their humor?


From mid July until mid September I participated in Jon Davison’s Clown Studies course* where we met weekly on Zoom with people from very different countries, time zones and backgrounds to exchange thoughts about all things related to clowns and clowning. Often we’d watch a video in the shared screen and then talk about it afterwards in the ‘normal’ screen where you see everybody. After seeing this clip focussing on the children's reactions on the Punch and Judy show during the course we said laughingly 'why do adults even try', but on a more serious note we weren’t sure whether this was learning the kids to be violent or learning them not to be afraid of authority by playing a game of push and pull with it.

It reminded me of my experience with one of the kindergarten kids I have the pleasure to teach here in Brussels, I’ll call them Sam. It was September 2019 and their first year in the kindergarten. Sam didn't really express themself verbally, when I first met them. To compensate for this, they expressed themself physically, by drinking the water pot with paint in it to inform me they were thirsty, for example. I tried to understand their language and just react to it. Another side of their impulsive behaviour was understood by other kids and by us teachers as 'violent'. Which is in fact a bit a heavy term for a three year old kid, even when they pushed, hit, kicked and were pulling hair, they were of course not really 'dangerous'. Still I didn't really know how to help them either, the situation was turning quite problematic. Kids and teachers were frustrated, parents were worried, but if you'd tell Sam off they would get extremely upset while the message didn't come across at all, they seemed completely allergic to authority.

Then I remembered Jon saying to us during a pre covid workshop in Brussels: ‘If kids are with their hands in your pockets, pushing and pulling you around that actually means you're being a good clown, you should think of yourself as an object’. So now when Sam pushed me, I didn't resist, my body let itself be pushed, and I discovered that this way it actually didn't hurt at all. Soon the pushing and pulling became a game, I would make a pratfall with my feet high up in the air and Sam would burst out laughing. Then I discovered that actually I quite enjoyed this game as well. When we also played like that on the playground, soon enough other kids wanted to join the game and loved it. Some of my colleagues were a bit sceptical of it at first, although they couldn't deny that as long as Sam was occupied pushing me they weren't hurting or upsetting other kids.

In later phases I started to teach Sam that if someone liked to be pushed, like me, they could do it, but if someone said they didn't like it Sam should not do it. I also gave a class on the amount of power they could use in the pushing or hitting each other by using a doll, pushing it myself a bit which I said was okay, or really hard and acting out the ambulance that would come, the parents that would be called, the prison they'd been put in, the kids were laughing at all of that as they knew none of that was actually 'real', still getting the message. A funny moment occured a bit later when another kid of my class was fighting on the playground with a friend and I started forbidding it and that kid corrected me saying they're only playing and not hurting each other.

When I then started a pre covid slapstick course, (I've written about that elswhere on this blog), the teacher promised us that after learning to fall we would also get to kicking, hitting, pushing, and pulling hair (without hurting each other!) In sum: all the things we tell the kids not to do! Then I discovered the book 'The Mirror of Laugher' by Alexander Kozitsev* in which he says that violence is the key to all humor. If that’s true, I thought, then our general approach of saying no to kids' violence and forcing them to say they're sorry is actually (conciously or not) saying no to the development of their humor!

During lockdown, we as kindergarten teachers sent the kids videos and held Zoom meetings, with the aims that learning should go on and to stay in touch. I ‘secretely’ prioritized another aim: to make them laugh. I thought that to be most important in fact in this time with so much fear and tension around that they couldn't possibly understand. So I did a silly pirate song, made stupid mistakes, made silly gestures or faces, fell from my chair at the end of the song etc. Since school reopened in June and we started back working in person there has been no physical distancing between kids or beteen kids and teachers so I am one of the 'lucky few' I suppose who get to have the feeling of physical proximity a lot of you get to miss for a long time already and for a long time to come maybe. But, while I won't deny it's nice to hold hands and give high fives and stuff, ofcourse it is, the downside of my privilige is that when I will get the virus all of the kids I teach and their families will have to stay at home because of me, which is a huge responsibility to be carrying with me, quite stressful. Sometimes I do wish we'd be still in lockdown and be having zoom meetings instead. The problem of which in my opinion wasn’t that we did not have fun, or that there was no laughter or connection, the problem was that not a lot of parents actually showed up with their kids, maybe they didn’t believe it could work? However, it was nice to see how Sam was much calmer in class and on the playground and expressed themself much more verbally. They had obviously grown a lot during that time at home with their family.

In August I taught a one week Summer course and Sam was in my group as well. I realised that with their transgressive behaviour they were actually trying to get laughter so I tried to encourage their initiatives like you would with a clown partner. We had an endlessly funny ‘scene’ were I would start trying to explain something to the group sitting in a circle while Sam was behind me standing on a chair in the kitchen turning on the kitchen hood, the noise of which was quite disturbing. So I walked towards them, playfully frustrated, turned it off, walked back, playfully relieved, started my explanation from the beginning, at which moment Sam would have put it on again. The kids’ reactions were like those kids in the Punch and Judy show. They clearly expected this to become a problematic and frustrating situation where I would get angry and Sam would be punished. Instead I repeated that same silly thing hundreds of times during that week and we developed dozens of similar things.

I think Slapstick doesn’t learn kids to be violent, the fact that they’re laughing actually proofs that they know it’s not real. I think it is useful in releasing tension, opening up the possibilities of roles to take on (observer/performer instead of transgressor/obliger) and learning to distinguish between real violence, the thing to be afraid of or upset about and fun violence which is just… fun. It may really be a key aspect to the development of their humor and should therefor better be regulated than forbidden!

As a final note. Some performers struggle with ‘moving online’ and don’t believe it can work. While I completely understand and respect that it can be difficult to adapt to a new form and it can be very tough not to be able to do it in the way you loved to, I wouldn’t agree that it can’t actually work. From my own expierences with Zoom I did feel that it's possible to connect on a very deep level. I think it's quite interesting to explore these new things even though it may be a bit challenging, we may learn a lot from it as well. Having just finished this online Clown Studies course I think it’s fair to say that I learned maybe more from it than from any in person course I’ve done and I think it had a lot of advantages: people from all the world could meet and exchange thoughts, it was possible to do things at your own pace and time, if you missed something you could watch the recording, and quite funny moments occured. Lots of new possibilites as well, and it's safe! Which is a big plus, these days. If another lockdown would occur I’ll definitely make sure to profit from the findings Charlie Peters* and Will Weigler* have put together about how to do physical comedy online.
Actually, come to think of it, a Punch and Judy video could be a very good option…