Paley, Vivian Gussin.(1992) You Can’t Say, You Can’t Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Every summer I teach a graduate course on “Play as a Learning Medium,” and I always recommend that the students read a book–any book– by Vivian Paley. I try to coax them into extra reading by adding that Paley’s books on play are great summer beach or back yard reads. From a graduate student’s point of view, Paley’s books of stories about children’s play in her classroom, seems simple and entertaining compared to their regular diet of scientific research articles and dense theoretical essays. Yet, while Paley’s stories and reflections on children’s play may seem simple, once one begins reading her stories, one may find themselves reconsidering how they understand children, play, and even the world.
Of all of Paley’s books, my favorite is You Can’t Say, You Can’t Play because it challenges children and adults to rethink how we treat one another. Paley shines a light on one of the more difficult aspects of free play in early childhood education settings—rejection of others. Teachers can probably attest to the many times they have observed small groups of children excluding another child. Or many adults may still feel the sting of rejection from their own memories of their childhood play when a classmate or peer said, “NO, you can’t play with us.” As Paley acknowledges, “Too often, the same children are rejected year after year. The burden of being rejected falls on a few children. They are made to feel like strangers.” (p. 22)
Rather than accepting this behavior as “that’s just the way things are” or ‘we all must get used to rejection,” Paley calls such reasoning into question. In the book, Paley describes a year long process of discovering what inclusive play in an inclusive community means by listening to children’s stories, telling her own, and discussing a new class rule for her kindergartners: “You can’t say, you can’t play.”
After observing the same children being excluded from play in her classroom by the same children who do the excluding, Paley recognized that if not interrupted children grow up thinking it is okay for others with more power to reject others. She asks her students,
“Is it fair for children in school to keep another child out of play? After all, the classroom belongs to all of us. It is not a private place, like our homes.” p 16
In the book, Paley documents the children’s thoughts on this question from kindergarten to upper elementary. Their thinking about play is quite revealing of human nature and sometimes difficult to hear coming from such young voices. The children’s play is also documented and reveals how they learn to treat each other more kindly. In the end, inclusion in play is not resolved by fixing the rejected individual but by a different way in which, “The group must change its attitudes and expectations toward those who, for whatever reason, are not yet part of the system.” (p 33).
Considering the current state of the world today where policies, systems, and rhetoric often dwell on labeling others and rejecting the powerless, the book You Can’t Say, You Can’t Play offers us an alternative way of being that is more inclusive and reminds us of the power of children’s play.
Vivian Gussin Paley is a former kindergarten teacher and a MacArthur Genius Award winner. She is best known for her storytelling- story acting/play teaching technique and for her many books about the play and stories of the children. Other books she has authored over the years are Wally’s Stories, White Teacher, The Girl with the Brown Crayon, The Kindness of Children and A Child’s Work: The Importance of Play. A great listener of children and an inspiration for many early childhood educators, Paley passed away this summer July 26, 2019. “It shall be added to my headstone. ‘Here lies a schoolteacher in whose time ‘You can’t say you can’t play’ was put into rhyme.” (p. 73)
Debora Basler Wisneski, PhD, is a former preschool and kindergarten teacher who discovered the joy of learning through play by using Paley’s storytelling/storyacting techniques. She is currently the John T. Langan Community Chair of Early Childhood Education at the University of Nebraska- Omaha and serves on the board of directors for The Association for the Study of Play.