Friday, November 25, 2011

Valuing Children's Play in Kindergarten

Design made in a Building Center in Kindergarten Classroom.

In Vivian Gussin Paley's (2005) A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play, she recounts this story dramatized by five-year-olds:

“Pretend I’m a big sister just like you,” said a little girl, climbing out of a doll-corner crib. “I’m not a baby anymore. I’m you!”
“No! Don’t pretend that!” cautioned her playmate, suddenly remorseful, stepping out of her role. “Don’t be like me! Because I’m really bad!”
“Like the wolf?”
“Oh, wait, now it’s okay. I’m a good sister now.”

Paley, ever interested in recording and interpreting children's play, makes this connection:
Had I not heard these lines before? Isn’t this what the older brother warns the younger brother in Long Day’s Journey Into Night? Watch out for me, Eugene O’Neill has Jamie tell Edmond, I’m no good and I’ll try to bring you down to where I am. But I’m being a good brother now to tell you this" (p. 17).

Devon at Home, Before School
Paley wants us to understand that the child-inspired storytelling and dramatization that occurs naturally must be privileged once again in kindergarten.  She wisely reminds us that before there was school, there were stories.  She recounts this memory:
"When I was five, living in an immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, we stayed home and found our stories there. We created spaces and rituals in corners and under tables, listening to grown-up conversations at the kitchen table. We knew all the local shopkeepers by name and history and could walk to their stores by ourselves. We recognized the sounds of peddlers calling out their wares in the alley behind our building and ran to greet them.
The grocer invited us to pet the cat, and the fruit and vegetable man, the iceman, and the knife sharpener gave us sugar cubes to feed their horses. My friend Shirley called down to me from her third-floor back porch when she heard them coming: “Pirate ship ahoy!” (p. 35). 
Story and dramatization form the foundation upon which more formal learning might rest.  Yet, Paley knows that play is severely limited at school, even at the kindergarten level. From the 1980s to present, the reduction of child-inspired play has been limited and has been in part replaced with teacher- or school/district-determined learning centers, worksheets, and curricula directly connected to reading, writing, and computing. Instead of child-inspired stories, some schools have required specific genres as young as kindergarten where children who have only been on the planet for 60 months at most are asked to create memoir. Paley states:
By the mideighties we were trying to transform the children’s work into projects and learning centers, hoping the players would not detect the differences. It made us feel more like real teachers when we controlled the topic, and we seldom borrowed our themes from the children’s play (pp. 30-31).
An issue related to replacing children's spontaneous and self-directed play with these adult facsimiles is that "fantasy propels the child to poetic heights over and above his ordinary level and was considered the original pathway to literacy" (p. 32).  Now, though, "it is now perceived by some as an obstacle to learning. We are allowed to nourish play only so long as it initiates reading, writing, and computing. We continue to call play the work of young children while reducing its appearance to brief interludes. There is barely time to develop a plot or transform a bad guy into a hero. The educational establishment has ceased admiring the stunning originality of its youngest students, preferring lists of numerical and alphabetical achievement goal (pp. 32- 33).

How many numbers can the chid count?
How many letters can the child identify?
How many sight words does the child know?
What DRA level is the child?
And so on.

In our rush into reading, writing, and numeracy, we may want to pause and as, 'What is being lost?'  How might we begin to know and then tell that story? Paley offers us a method we can use to restore play as a central figure in kindergartens. She tell us to become keen observers and to record what the children say and do as they engage in dramatic play and to use this as source material for the adult stories we need to tell about young children, the importance of play, and learning..
We who value play must do more than complain of unwanted drills that steal away our time. We must find time for play and keep daily journals of what is said and done during play if we are to convince anyone of its importance. Our children will happily join us in the project by giving us their stories that so well explain their play when the stories are acted out (p.33).
I am wondering how many kindergarten classrooms still privilege children's spontaneous play?

A dramatic play area in a Kindergarten.

Work Cited
Paley, Vivian Gussin (2005-05-27). A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play. University of Chicago Press - A. Kindle Edition.


  1. or any age classroom, or space...

    gosh - this was perfect for me just now Mary Ann. thank you so much.

    what you write (what Paley writes) sounds like our goal with our detox documentation:
    We who value play must do more than complain of unwanted drills that steal away our time. We must find time for play and keep daily journals of what is said and done during play if we are to convince anyone of its importance.

  2. I was just thinking about this. It makes me crazy!! I student taught at a nursery school where the teachers had to have written explanations justifying each play center and how it promoted thinking and learning. It was a mixed class of 3 and 4 year olds.
    I gave play centers (art, drama, blocks, Legos, games, computers) to my first graders and was amazed at the things they accomplished, created, and discovered during that time. They also learned to work together and make group decisions, such as when they built elaborate cities out of Legos. It was so much more engaging and meaningful than just having me dicate a lesson. Centers do NOT get the credit they deserve, and kids do not get the time to play that they deserve. What cannot be measured doesn't count :( --Sam

  3. Monika, I think the detox practice is huge. Observation and interpretation of what is said and done by learners is our most important work.

  4. Hey Sam, it is complicated as learning to observe play time time. Instead, we rush in an crowd the work with already determined beliefs.

    We are rushing too much.

  5. Hi Mary Ann. Are you familiar with: Playing Their Way into Literacies: Reading, Writing, and Belonging in the Early Childhood Classroom (Language and Literacy Series) by Karen E. Wohlwend (Oct 15, 2011)?

  6. Hi Dorothy,

    Thanks so much as I didn't know the text. Am looking it up.


  7. Dorothy, The book looks great. Next pay check:)

  8. Mary Ann,

    If you're not familiar with the wider worldwide decline of freeform play, I'd also recommend checking out Esa's (@idevbooks) post on play and this NPR episode on free form play and it's relationship to creativity and the development of executive function (and parallels to decline in both in developed countries' populations over the past decades) - related areas I'm strongly concerned with.


    - Ian

  9. @Ian Thanks for the links. I read @idevbook's blog post and was impressed with it and also alarmed at what was written. We continue to restrict free play in ways that defy common sense. It makes sense to me that executive function would decline as thinking requires more than following someone else's plan. One beauty of free play, especially as I describe it in this post, is the extraordinary leaps in logic that young children compose as they compose themselevs and their world through play. We cannot orchestrate that.


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