March 7, 2019

Must you say yes to play?

Ben Mardell

Navigating the paradox between choice and the right to play

You teach kindergarten (or Grade 1 or Grade 4). Josh has come to you in tears (again). Otis and Fred have told him he can’t play with them. Otis and Fred may have sensible reasons for excluding Josh. Perhaps Josh had smacked Fred in the nose (again) earlier in the morning. Perhaps, when Josh joins the game, he insists on taking the choice roles and demands that Otis take less appealing roles.

But perhaps there are nefarious reasons for the rejection. Otis may be exercising the sense of power that excluding a peer from play confers. Or Fred might be mirroring bias he has heard at home, rejecting Josh because of his skin color.

At the International School of Billund (ISB) in Denmark, teacher-researchers Marina Barbón and Sarah Sørensen are exploring how to create inclusive, welcoming environments for their K2 (five-year-old) and K1 (three and four-year-old) students.

Image courtesy of International School of Billund

Inspired by Vivian Paley’s classic teacher-research volume You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, Marina and Sarah introduce this as a possible rule in their classrooms. Understanding that the genius of Paley’s work wasn’t the rule itself, but rather the process she undertook to explore the issue with her kindergarteners, Marina and Sarah facilitate multiple conversations with their children. They record these conversations and listen to them with colleagues in weekly study group meetings to consider what they might do next.

In Sarah’s class, at first the children embrace the idea of this new rule. But after a few days a couple of vocal children sway the group to abandon it. Conversation with her colleagues leads Sarah to the conclusion that the underlying values that would lead to embracing you can’t say you can’t play - kindness and compassion - are missing in the community. She decides to investigate how she can promote these values by supporting children in reflecting on their play.

Marina introduces the rule to her class by explaining that the children in Sarah’s class are giving it a try, and suggests they give it a go for a week.

Image courtesy of International School of Billund

The children’s responses include: “let’s do it for a month” and “let’s do it until we are nine.” Despite this positive reception, Marina soon finds children looking for loopholes to the rule, for example, saying “I’ll play with you later,” or looking down and pretending not to hear a request to play. One child, when asked to play, even pretended to hear a classmate calling him - a ruse that was discovered because the classmate wasn’t in school that day.  

Marina and Sarah are navigating the paradox between choice and the right to play. In play, children choose with whom they want to play, for how long, and how to sort out disagreements (including saying, “I don’t want to play with you anymore”). At the same time, in school, children have a right to equal access to the resources for learning (pencils, paint, and play). As a core resource for learning, play should not be something from which children are excluded.

This navigation includes the recognition that play often entails a meta-exploration of rules. In play, the players get to make and change the rules. Marina and Sarah are guiding their young students in this exploration of making and changing their community rules. In thoughtful, democratic ways, they are providing children choice and helping all be involved in play.