Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Weds. with Words: A Child's Work by Paley

Last week I was at the park and a friend expressed her concerns about her 5 yo son's imaginative play. As I listened to her I was reminded of Vivian Paley's work.  Her books are rich and remind you of the wonder of childhood - she captures it so well.

Her most recent book, A Child's Work: the Importance of Fantasy Play is wonderful.  She passionately defends waiting to start reading education and allowing kids to just enjoy story as 5 year olds. She honors the children as storytellers and doesn't make them tell "logical" stories but allows them to switch characters and explore emotions and ideas through their play.  

Here she is quoting another teacher who teaches a mixed 5 and 6 year old class:
"Whenever I have to concentrate on reading with the sixes," she writes, "the highly imaginative curriculum devised by the fives suffers through lack of time.  Good play and the sort of talk that follows take time and deep thought.  There are no shortcuts.  The early practicing of reading is not a good trade off, in my opinion.  I'd prefer to keep the fives and their special social curriculum alone.
Soon after she explains the nature of this "special social curriculum"
Here the children have a clear view for the first time, of the pecking order in school society.  For these insights and others, the kindergarten year can be exceptionally productive period, the culmination of years of early social observations and fantasy play. By kindergarten, children have the added patience, experience, and vocabulary with which to carry the plot and the characters to places they have never been before, and to apply what they now know to their social relationships. 
Later she more clearly addresses one of the key benefits of fantasy play.
When play is curtailed, how are they to confront their fantasy villains?  The potential novelists in our midst are endlessly hampered in the name of readiness for first grade and, increasingly for kindergarten. 
She begins to tackle the big question and puts it this way:
By the nineties a "chicken and egg" dilemma became apparent to me.  Since the earlier we being academics, the more problems are revealed, were the problems there waiting to be discovered or does the premature introduction of lessons cause the problems? 
And here is the quote that broke my heart.
Expectations for incoming first graders are quite precise and the tension begins  even before the teacher and student meet.  The potential for surprise is largely gone.  We no longer wonder, "Who are you?" but instead decide quickly "What can we do to fix you?" 
All my friends who have taught testify to testing by the second week of school so that you can see where kids are and start "fixing" them. That's just the first half of the book.

As I write this my 6 and 4 year old are playing an intricate make believe version of Seaman: The Dog Who Explored the West with Lewis and Clark.  We read two chapters last night to the older boys. Now the middle two are re-enacting the grizzly bear scenes, learning to carry the pack, etc.  I quietly asked the 6 year old if he was going to tell the 4 yo about the beaver bite.   The 6 yo told me that it might make his brother sad so they wouldn't play that part.  That is compassion in action.

Paley's connection between the disappearance of imaginative play and the introduction of early reading might have more implications than she expects - on a neurological level.  A few years ago we listened to My Stroke of Insight on a long trip.  It follows the journey of a neuroscientist who has a stroke and loses the ability to read.  She discusses how she had to make a conscious decision to let go of one way of thinking as she was learning to read.  It was hard for her to choose to enter back into the logical thinking that reading was producing in her brain.

This next section is speculation on my part - a combining of these two thoughts.  Could it be that some of the emotional problems we are seeing in young children are because we are switching kids out of this playful mode too early?  It's not just a lack of time, through reading we are literally reorganizing their brains in a way that makes it difficult for them to use play to cope with their emotions and thoughts.

Many early readers don't seem to be able to play in this creative way as well because they have literally lost the ability to be spontaneous and less logical.  They tell stories logically - like adults - and can't make the illogical jumps that younger story tellers make.  They can't play multiple roles in one play session because that doesn't make logical sense - but watch a 4 yo play and they can be the baby, the mom and the dad very quickly.  Paley captures this fluidity of play so well in her work.  I look forward to the second half of the book.

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