Vivian Paley, 'The Boy on the Beach' @ 57th Street Books

Because I am essentially a big nerd, I envisioned that the 57th Street Bookstore would be teeming with early childhood enthusiasts.  I feared that if my friend and I arrived any later than 5:30 pm, we would have to squeeze through a standing-room-only crowd to get a decent vantage of the visiting author, and that I’d have to wait forever to get a book signed, if there were even any copies of the book left.  I am pleased to say that while the event was well-attended, my anxiety was unwarranted.  And it was a lovely time listening to Vivian Gussin Paley talk about children, stories and relationships.

While there was no throng of early childhood practitioners, I set out to buy my books before the talk, so I could have them signed afterward without too much waiting (besides being rather averse to waiting in lines myself, I was accompanied by my 11 month old son, who might not tolerate waiting after an hour-long lecture/reading).  As I approached the book table, Ms. Paley walked into the room with her husband.  Yay!  Almost immediately she engages me, the conversation starting with Duncan (my son), and moving on to the topic of the early childhood job market and what’s going on with the Illinois state budget.  I mention how she was the honored guest at my masters degree commencement, trying my best not to sound like a groupie.  She has that kind of unabashed openness that puts you at ease, and makes you feel like you are talking with someone you already know.  I see my friend Rachael arrive, and I excuse myself go to purchase my copies of ‘The Boy on the Beach,’ and ‘You Can’t Say You Can’t Play,’ before the talk begins.

What strikes me most about listening to Paley describe what she sees and learns from observing children’s play, is that she is able to articulate the value of play in a way that relays the essential humanity of it.  I attended a luncheon presentation once, sponsored by the Alliance for Childhood, where the speaker was a woman who teaches children to play for a living.  She expressed her frustration at the limited understanding people generally have for the importance of play; how play skills are taken for granted and her work is often gently dismissed with “Well isn’t that nice?” when she thinks of herself as advocating for a human rights issue.  Vivian Paley gets it, and she explains it rather elegantly.  During her talk, she discussed how children, in play, offer and accept roles from each other, building relationships through the mutual acceptance of each other’s stories.  Talking about loneliness, or “the dark spot of children going to school,” Paley explains how “one piece of dialog makes a friend out of a stranger.”  What great, simple tools for educators to use!  So much of intentional instruction and guidance of children is just this: knowing how to sculpt education and growth out of what already occurs.  She encourages us to make way for conversations that will happen among children, and to see why those conversations- facilitated in imaginative play- are essential to children building relationships, and building community among each other.  Another favorite quote along those lines: “With play, a young child figures out a way to be necessary to the group.”

Of course, the kind of play that Paley is talking about takes a lot of time and space created by adults.  The rich soil of great play is being eroded by time constraints, testing expectations and didactic instruction, and we talked about that.  Paley presented us with the metaphor of “Play is a Play,” and stated that we are cutting that performance somewhere between Acts II and III.  She challenges us to consider what happens in classrooms where play is cut off before Act III emerges, before the story the children are weaving reaches its logical or necessary conclusions.  What is lost when we cut these stories short?

When she opened the floor for questions, a person brought up digital media and how it creates disconnection, encourages short attention span, etc.  Naturally we talked about how preparing for assessments dominates a lot of classroom time.  I have to admit a mild lack of patience for these parts of Q&A sessions, because there is a tendency among educators to begin a lot of hand-wringing and wondering aloud why no one listens to us.  A lot of time can be spent complaining about ways that our collective store of knowledge is ignored.  I don’t mean to say that venting frustrations is a waste of time, but doing it while Vivian Gussin Paley is sitting there, willing to answer questions, would be a wasted opportunity.  My solution to this problem is to circumvent with a well-placed question about action and advocacy.  My question:  As the nation moves in the direction of more assessment-for-accountability and the conversation about common educational standards changes the perception of early childhood on the national stage, have you participated in any initiatives or activities to address prioritizing play in terms of policy and advocacy?  Her answer: Engage parents in advocacy. She said the adult who is most easily reached regarding this topic is the parent, and that parents groups are the best groups to speak to in order to effect some change.  Then, bringing it back to the educators she said, “Teachers can make more use of their parent groups than they have.”  There’s a gentle challenge there, I think.  There is often tension in the relationship between teacher and parent (reasonably so), and too often, even when good relationships exist between parents and educators, there can still be a pernicious Us v. Them mindset that prevents us from fully harnessing the power we could wield if we not only worked together, but advocated for each other (for example, how many parents have out there in Illinois have considered calling your legislator and speaking up to save teachers’ jobs?  How many teachers have contacted their state representative to support house bill 174 -or any legislation- on behalf of families?).

My friend Rachael, a teacher of at-risk pre-k and kindergarten asked a follow-up question asking what advice she had to give to teachers who are trying to preserve play in their classrooms when many are moving towards having common schedules for each grade level yet still want to advocate for play? and Paley responded “It can be done with more… like-minded help,” encouraging Rachael to make more use of a community effort within her school, and find creative solutions to getting enough bodies in the classroom to support such an effort, like using older students to record story dictations.  I appreciate Paley's suggestions to create more of a community effort within classrooms, however, I think sometimes teachers should be encouraged to advocate outside of the world of the classroom, which can be very insular and isolating. Play is unappreciated in institutions beyond individual schools or school districts, and we have to contend with more than principals and superintendents.  Legislators, and others who influence policy can always stand to hear input from constituents who are educators.  Some teachers may have to step outside of their comfort zones to affect change on a community-wide level.

I look forward to reading Paley's latest work, and benefiting from her insights.  Her voice is an important one among advocates for play.  I'm glad I got a second chance to hear her speak, and thank her for her words and wisdom.

Originally posted at 'And How are the Children..?' on 4/16/2010

Atena blogs Early Childhood issues at 'And How are the Children?'

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