The Wrong Name Tags

Here’s a great game to play with a group of kids, say 3-and-a-half or older, whom you know quite well.

“Good morning,” I’ll say to Jake. “My name is Jake!”

“No!” giggles Jake. “I’m Jake!”

“Oh, of course, sorry,” I say, “I forgot, I’m not Jake. My name is Tali.”

“No, my name is Tali!” says Tali.

“Oh, okay,” I say, “If you’re Tali, then I must be Lev.” And so on, until everyone is involved. And then:

“Wait, I’m completely confused!” I cry. “I know! We can fix this with name tags.” I get out name tags, or masking tape in a pinch. Getting the name tags started is the trickiest part. I might say to Amelia (who I know is likely to go along with something silly), “You! Your name is Betsy, right?” naming Amelia’s mom and nodding my head and smiling real big so Amelia laughs and says yes. Or I might say, “What’s your name? Is it Laurel or Alyssa?” naming her two best friends. Or I might address the whole group and ask, “Who wants their name to be Jarrod today?” Or I might start with myself, saying, “I know my name is Teacher Lisa,” putting on a name tag with my co-teacher’s name. Once you get one child to pick a wrong name, they all will. Superhero names, silly names, switching names with friends, multiple names—it’s all fair game.

Once everyone has a wrong name, it’s up to you how far you want to take it. I like walking with the kids up to other teachers and introducing them all wrong, according to their name tags. Or doing name games at circle time with all the wrong names. Or just making sure you keep addressing them by their name tags all day. I’ve had kids who want to keep it up for hours.

Other kids get done with it sooner. And some children won’t want a silly name. “I’m Charlotte,” says Charlotte. That’s fine, don’t push her to choose a wrong name if she doesn’t want too. Just giver her a name tag that says, “Charlotte.” She’ll change her mind later if she wants too, but she needs to feel in control of this game, which is a little scary or weird for some kids.

This game is about, of all things, irony. Which might not sound like an important thing to learn in preschool, but take it from me, it is. It’s one of the reasons rough-housing is important too: getting to understand that just because your friend is about to jump on you doesn’t mean he’s mad at you—and vice versa. Similarly, we can all call you “Ray” even though we know your name is Donny. In fact, we can only do it because we know your name is Donny. That’s why it’s important to do it with a group you know really well: you don’t want kids to have any doubt that you’re pretending, that you actually know who they are.

Pretending things that aren’t true is really important for young children. It makes them better at creating stories and understanding books. It makes them better able to grasp abstract concepts. It makes them more skilled at socio-dramatic play, which is the short-cut to everything you want young children to learn (more on that another time). It builds executive function (AKA self-control).

And it works best when it’s playful. So call a child by the wrong name on purpose, and see what happens.

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2 thoughts on “The Wrong Name Tags

  1. Betsy November 28, 2012 at 8:25 pm Reply

    I love this game–and it was fun to see our family names in print! Also fun because I call Donny and Ray by each other’s names all the time. One other thing about this game is that giving a person a nickname is also an expression of fondness.

    John would refer to his scripts and frames schema–when a person is “in” the frame with you, then they know that you’re teasing and not demeaning them.

  2. jarrodgreen November 28, 2012 at 10:07 pm Reply

    Besty, you’re absolutely right. Again, just like rough-housing, calling someone the wrong name could be construed as aggressive in the wrong context, but read in the right context is an expression of affection and brings people closer. The key is for children to learn to read and respond to context – an important life skill they can only learn through experience.

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