You Can't Say You Can't Play - Vivian Paley

And yet, is there not a natural desire to include certain people and exclude others? Or is this desire in the same category as, say, biting? Some two-year-olds have a strong need to bite people; when they learn to curb the impulse they are much relieved. Perhaps being destructive is a burden. Yes, it must surely come as a relief when one's good times are no longer predicated upon someone else's bad times. That is, if the comparison to biting is correct.

I first heard about Vivian Paley on This American Life, an episode titled "The Cruelty of Children." Paley was a kindergarten teacher and recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, and her book is about introducing a new rule to her kindergarten class: You Can't Say You Can't Play.

Paley had noticed that some kids often rejected others in the course of playing. Usually they gave some excuse: we already have enough people for this game; you don't have the same sort of doll, but if you get this sort of doll we'll let you play; it'll be your turn to play with us next week. Although almost every child rejected somebody else at some point in time, generally there were a few who seemed to do most of the rejecting, and a few that seemed to be most often rejected.

There are rules in school about hitting or biting; but why not create a rule that prohibited rejection? Paley wasn't sure if it would work, and engaged her students in conversations about it. She also checked with the first through fifth graders (many of whom had been in her class for kindergarten) to get their response. The results were interesting: of course the kids who did most of the rejecting were the most resistant to the rule, and the outsiders thought it sounded fair.

The older kids all seemed to agree that it sounded like a fair rule, and that they thought it would work in kindergarten, but it would never work with them—they were too set in their ways, too mean already. You have to start early, they told Paley. Well, in the end Paley did establish the rule (hanging up a sign with large letters). Despite initial resistance, the rule quickly became the norm. Arguments about it were more questions of interpretation rather than questioning the rightness of the rule itself.

It's a very short book, told anecdotally and recounting many of the conversations Paley has with the kids. Interspersed with these accounts are pieces of a story about Magpie and Annabella that Paley made up to tell her students. The stories often reflected concerns the kids were thinking about, and Paley uses them as a way to teach through story. However, the way the stories were inserted were a little disorienting at first. Having read NurtureShock recently, I found this sort of qualitative rather than quantitative science to be vague and free-form.

However, I came away from the book thinking about the possibilities of teaching inclusion rather than allowing rejection. I spoke to our school's kindergarten teacher today about the book, and I'm considering getting a copy so that it can be circulated at the school. (The copy I'm reading is on interlibrary loan so it'll have to go back.)

It's not the most well-written book, but it's very short and conversational, and the topic is quite relevant to me personally. I often wonder how to teach my own daughter how to include her little sister in her games, even while teaching her how to respond when her classmates shut her out of theirs. I'd encourage you to look for this book especially if you have young children of your own. Despite the fact that it's been around since 1992, I don't think it's an approach that I've heard being commonly used and I'm curious whether it would be feasible to implement on a wider scale.

Fed to jonathan's brain | March 07, 2010 | Comments (0)


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