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Speaking Volumes: All Work and No Play? It makes them more than dull little boys and girls

August 18, 2005 By:
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Vivian Gussin Paley, a longtime kindergarten teacher and author with a score of titles to her credit, made her mark as an educator by telling stories to the young and getting their reactions. Sometimes, the children would share stories with her, then act them out, an exercise that Paley heartily encouraged, insisting in her published works that it benefited a child's thinking process and contributed to the cultivation of a young student's moral sense.

Her most recent book, A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play, newly reissued in paperback by the University of Chicago Press, is constructed around this foundational notion, which has nurtured Paley's long career. But there is a new note sounded in this brief study - a sense of alarm that the educational world is teetering on a precipice, simply because contemporary educators seem, in Paley's estimation, to have devalued - even banished - all creative time in young students' lives. Her publisher calls A Child's Work a manifesto, and there is no way of denying the sense of urgency behind her message.

Paley first heard play described as work when she was herself a student - a senior in college - not yet having decided to be a teacher but considering it seriously. The year was 1949, and she was in Rena Wilson's course called "Introduction to Young Children" at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans. Wilson was the director of the Newcomb Nursery School, where the course was given.

Following the dismissal of the children at the end of the school day, the members of the class would sit on the child-sized chairs in the nursery school and listen as Wilson told them that they were observing "the only age group in school that is always busy making up its own work assignments. It looks and sounds like play, yet we properly call this play the work of children. Why? That is what you are here to find out."

Wilson then charged them with the task of pretending that they were actually the children playing. They were told to decipher what it was they were trying to accomplish and what got in the way of accomplishing it. They were to act out what they had seen and then "fill in the blanks." At each point, they were to remind themselves what it was like to be a child.

"In time we discovered that play was indeed work," writes Paley. "First there was the business of deciding who to be and who the others must be and what the environment is to look like and when it is time to change the scene. Then there was the even bigger problem of getting others to listen to you and accept your point of view while keeping the integrity of the make-believe, the commitment of the other players, and perhaps the loyalty of a best friend. Oddly enough, the hardest part of the play for us to reproduce or invent were the fantasies themselves. Ours were never as convincing or interesting as the children's; it took us a great deal of practice to do what was, well, child's play in the nursery."

'On Safer Ground'?
More than 50 years have passed since Wilson first uttered the words equating child's play with work. Paley still believes wholeheartedly in the concept, but she worries that the current "revision of priorities" in our nation's preschools and kindergartens has relegated play to the dust heap of history and replaced it with lessons. She wonders, in fact, if work has not now become the play of children.

Many of the teachers she has spoken to insist that the mood has changed in the classroom, especially since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, necessitating these shifts in curriculum. Fantasy play seems - for at least one preschool director Paley spoke to - a dangerous terrain, and if teachers in the school can't handle "what's coming out," then they are not pressed to initiate fantasy play, especially with the 4- and 5-year-olds. It's better to stick to lesson plans.

"Maybe it's the increased tension since 9/11," says the preschool director. "Children do seem less prepared, more at risk. We're on safer ground with a somewhat academic curriculum. It's more dependable."

Paley wrote her book specifically to counteract this kind of thinking. There is no activity, she posits, that the young are better suited for - and better prepared for - than fantasy play. "Nothing is more dependable and risk-free, and the dangers are only pretend. What we are in danger of doing is delegitimizing mankind's oldest and best-used learning tool."

By documenting and dramatizing these children's "language, lore and literary strivings," she explains, "my purpose is to examine their curriculum in its natural form, much as they study one another through the medium of their play." If there is one constant in all this, insists Paley, it is the efficacy of fantasy play itself. It crosses all generational lines, never changing from year to year, decade to decade.

Snippets of Dialogue
Paley offers nearly 20 chapters filled with examples of the kind of purposeful play she cherishes and would like to see encouraged again. Some are simple snippets of dialogue in response to books or child-created scenarios. Others are pages long and highly complex in their permutations.

A brief example will have to suffice.

At one point, Paley discusses a set of children's responses to a reading of Charlotte's Web by E.B. White.

" 'Why does Charlotte?" 5-year-old Adam asked as I put down [the book] at the end of chapter nine.

" 'Why does she what?'

" 'What is she?'

" 'Do you mean is she a spider?'

" 'How does she do that?'

" 'Spin a web?' I asked.

" 'No, to Wilbur.'

" 'Talk to him?'

" 'Why is she his friend?' The question has emerged.

" 'Oh, that. I've also wondered about that,' I replied, beginning to formulate my answer. But Adam was ready with his own explanation.

" 'Because she loves him. And she's lonely for her baby. The baby is gone, growed up, and now she has Wilbur. That's why.'

"Adam already has a reputation for being rough on the playground, grabbing boys and pulling them down. Yet he knows why Charlotte is Wilbur's friend. After my conversation with Adam, I noticed him in the doll corner arranging blankets into a nest-like pile. 'This is for Wilbur,' he said. 'Jennie is Charlotte. She's my mother.'

" 'You'll be safe and comfortable in this nest. But where is Charlotte?' I asked.

"He pointed to the easel. 'She has to paint the web for us.'

"Are the fives too old for such play? Is it too 'babyish' for children who are supposed to be preparing for first grade? At the story table Jennie provided 'proof' that such play is what children still need and put to good use. 'There was a baby pig named Wilbur,' she dictated. 'Then came a spider and she hears him crying in the barn. "Don't cry, because you and me is family." And they are best friends.'

"Jennie and Adam, in play and story, had captured the essence of E.B. White's masterpiece. … Every child in the class understood that Charlotte's Web is an extraordinary tale of friendship and love, skills that are practiced in the doll corner, the blocks, and even on the playground, cumbersome as that sometimes appears to the outsider when these skills are mixed into a Spider-Man scenario. The children do not ask themselves whether Wilbur is immature or whether Charlotte acts enough like a spider. E.B. White himself would think the children's play correctly reflects the relationship between Wilbur and Charlotte, as complex and mature a concept as we could possibly introduce."

After all her various and sundry examples, Paley then suggests calling play the work of teachers as well. "If, as Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, informs us, children rise above their average behavior in play, let us pursue the ways in which their teachers might follow them up the ladder, starting at the first rung, which, as every child knows, is fantasy play."

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