You Can’t Say You Can’t Play

Exclusion begins early in life, and it can be observed even in preschool settings. In days a class divides up into three main groups:

  • Leaders who say who gets to play in their games,
  • The children excluded from the games
  • The children in the middle who live in fear of being rejected.

For the kindergartner who finds social skills a challenge, the exclusion of the playground becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: a child isn’t included in a game because he plays too rough, wears different clothes or has a speech impediment. The list of deficiencies is long. Once the ”in” group rejects this child, the exclusion isolates the outcast child from the other children in all three groups.

The child is in quarantine from the group leaders, since it was the leaders saying, “You can’t play,” that created the exclusion in the first place. The rejected child is segregated from the other rejected children who are afraid of being further ostracized by the leaders. The third group forms with the children in the middle who are disinclined to play with the excluded children in case the leaders also tell them that they can’t play.

Preschoolers create a caste system, and change can be an impossible task.

Vivian Gussin Paley, nearing her 60th birthday and 40 years of working with preschoolers and kindergartners, decided to test for herself whether this caste system she had observed for so many years, and at that point considered inevitable, could in fact be broken.

Paley begins by putting a sign on the wall–You Can’t Say You Can’t Play (also the title of her book)–and starts discussions with her kindergartners about her proposed rule. ”Is it fair?” Paley asks. Paley knows she needs these five-year-olds to buy into the change.

Paley talks with her students to help the children figure out ”who is sadder, the one who isn’t allowed to play or the one who has to play with someone he or she doesn’t want to play with?”

An outcast child, Clara, says it’s sadder if you can’t play.

Lisa, an excluding leader, says, ”The other one is the same sadder.”

Angelo, a loner, helps Lisa and the rest of the class understand. ”It has to be Clara, because she puts herself away in her cubby. And Lisa can still play every time.”

Inspired by a bird that followed Paley on a morning run, Paley uses the adventures of Magpie to weave a serial story, a journey of loneliness and exclusion with a cast of princes, princesses and animals that parallels events in the classroom.

Paley talks to the older grades about the rule. Older children think it is a good idea, but they tell Paley that they are perhaps too old for the rule to be effective because they are already too hurt to trust others.

When Paley moves to institute the rule in her classroom after weeks of discussing the implications of the rule and the unfolding of the Magpie story, Paley is amazed at how quickly the culture changes in her room, from exclusion to inclusion.

With her rule Paley uncovers a fundamental truth: ”We must be told, when we are young, what rules to live by. The grown-ups must tell children early in life so that that myth and morality proclaim the same message while the children are still listening.”

Paley begins her book with Leviticus 19:34:

The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Each of us is born a stranger into a strange land. If I could be Queen for a Day, I’d ask parents and teachers around the world to read Paley’s You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.

As Paley tells us, ”Each time a cause for sadness is removed for even one child…we all rise in stature….”

We all could stand a little taller.

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