I Can’t Do That (Part 1)

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“I can’t do that”

I hear this phrase a lot while giving presentations or after posting online about things like rough and tumble play, risky play, or letting children lead their learning.

The “I can’t do that” is often preceded by some variation of “I love the idea, BUT….” or “I know it’s developmentally appropriate, BUT…” or “The kids would love it, BUT” and in many cases it is followed by “…THEY won’t let me.” The identities of the THEYs vary–usually administrators, coworkers, licencors, QRS programs, parents, etc.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that “I can’t do that here” has many meanings.


It is often used as an excuse to cover up fear, lack of understanding, or exhaustion. It sometimes means the speaker has no interest in doing the thing they claim they can’t do because it conflicts with their philosophy or current understanding of how children learn. Other times the phrase is accurate–the person speaking it works in a setting where, for varied reasons, they are not allowed to engage in This or That practice.

In this series of posts, we’re digging into the uses of the phrase. We’ll start with “I can’t do that” as an excuse.

Often, “I can’t do that” is an excuse that really means:

  • “I don’t have the energy”
  • “I don’t want to put in the effort”
  • “I don’t know how”
  • “Change is hard”
  • “Change is scary’
  • “I’m comfortable with the way things are”
  • “I can’t find the time”
  • “I lack resources”

Falling back on an excuse when confronted with change is human nature. A convenient excuse is easier than taking responsibility for not taking action. Saying “I can’t do that because the licensing consultant says kids can’t engage in rough and tumble play–it’s in the regulations” is easier than saying “figuring out how to make rough and tumble play work in my classroom sounds complicated and I’m exhausted”. It’s often easier to point at a scapegoat than it is to personally take responsibility. People do it all the time. I do it. You probably do, too. I should exercise more, but excuses are easier. I should eat better, but I make excuses while eating donuts. In my early learning career I’ve probably used “I can’t do that here” as an excuse for all the reasons listed above.

I’ve also found myself in situations where the group paying me a nice chunk of cash to present on a topic is also the group being pointed to as the THEY that won’t let whatever I’m talking about happen. I’ll speak on supporting weapons and superhero play and afterwards hear “I LOVE the idea, I really do, but THEY won’t let us do that” from an attendee sixty seconds after a representative of THEY hands me a check.

Here’s a tip to keep in mind for the next early learning conference you attend: Groups rarely shell out money for a speaker to come in and talk about what they don’t want early learning programs to do. That would be a counter productive headache generator. Groups that hire speakers want the things those speakers advocate to happen in the programs represented by the people in attendance.

It’s understandable that we turn to an excuse when we’re tired, scared, unsure, or lacking resources, but it’s not best practice.

So, how do we get to better practice? How do we get from “I can’t do that” as an excuse to “Let’s give that a try”?

The first step is to pause. To create a bit of space between you and the excuse.

I finally got to the point in my professional journey where, instead of reflexively grabbing the “I can’t do that” excuse when confronted with the opportunity to change, I could pause and reflect on the topic. With that pause, I was able to create room for reflection. Instead of jumping right to “we can’t allow weapons play” I was able to create space to ask myself “Why can’t we allow weapons play?”

It took time to get here. Like many people, I had let “I can’t do that” become a habit–and habits are hard to change.

We’ll get into habit change and more in Part 2.

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I'm an early learning speaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ and Explorations Early Learning.