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In defence of proper pretence

Mary Jane Drummond revels in Vivian Gussin Paley's evidence in support of the child's right to play

A Child's Work: the importance of fantasy play

Vivian Gussin Paley

University of Chicago Press pound;13.50

This irresistible book is Vivian Gussin Paley at her very best; but with a difference. In the two books written since she retired from full-time kindergarten teaching (The Kindness of Children and In Mrs Tully's Room), she has woven her text from stories other teachers tell her and dramas from other people's classrooms as well as from memories of children from long ago. So the mixture in this book, of times and spaces old and new, is nothing strange; what's different is the cold, critical eye she casts on the shape and purposes of early education today.

Running through the book is a theme of reproach, regret and resistance to the academic, skills-based curriculum she now sees. She has detected a new sentiment, the notion that there is "too much play", that children coming into school have had enough before their kindergarten year (the equivalent of the reception year in England). There is worse to come: "Furthermore, these early years (are) designated as the optimum time to introduce the shapes and sounds of letters, rather than the shapes and sounds of characters in a story."

Paley's defence of fantasy play is fuelled by urgency and a passionate interest in children and everything they do. The issues she identifies in US kindergartens, nurseries and daycare centres are familiar to early years people here. Has she been listening at the keyhole of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority? How else can she know that "the educational establishment (has) ceased admiring the stunning originality of its youngest students, preferring lists of numerical and alphabetical achievement goals".

Fortunately, as she argues in the next lines, the antidote to these challenges is not hard to find. "We who value play must do more than complain of unwanted drills that steal away our time. We must find time for play and keep daily journals of what is said and done during play if we are to convince anyone of its importance."

And, having set herself this task, she falls to it with a will. Each of the 21 chapters of the book, none more than five pages long, is enriched with vivid images and entrancing dramas from her journals. The evidence piles up; play is incontrovertibly important, and fantasy play especially so. It is the entirely "nourishing habitat for the growth of cognitive, narrative and social connectivity in young children".

At the same time, she keeps on complaining, and every complaint is worth listening to. "Today we judge or prejudge every shade of difference between children. We scrutinise their responses according to arbitrary scales that seldom include the unfolding of children's imaginations, as revealed in their play."

Revealed in these pages too, with story after powerful story from Paley's magnificent anthology of the imagination, all collected from "natural born storytellers who create their own dramatic literature". The case she makes is convincing because, in generous moves of self-analysis, she shows us her own learning, her own coming to understand. With a wry smile of remembrance she exposes the well-intentioned and well-trained teacher she once was, the one with all the good questions and all the good stories: "I saw myself as the bestower of place and belonging, of custom and curriculum, too often ignoring the delicate web being constructed by the children in their constant exchange of ideas the moment I stopped talking and they resumed playing."

Then, as she learned to listen more attentively, more respectfully, her journals began to fill with children's stories, and children's play with stories. She shows us how she came to grasp the significance of children's dialogues, and their startling and profound conversations. Her present insistence on the necessary relation between a rich variety of fantasy play and intellectual growth is represented as a hard-earned, precious insight, on which she will not negotiate. She knows where the best conversations begin (in the blocks and the doll corner) and what is and isn't worth knowing.

The final chapter (published in last week's Friday) is of special interest to English readers, as it starts with a story from an English classroom, in December 2002, where a child dictates a 911 story. His classmates act it out - and immediately ask to do it again. Trisha Lee, director of the theatre company Make Believe, leading the session, asks them why they want to do the story again. The answer is simplicity itself - "because it's really interesting".

Paley takes this story into a kindergarten she knows, and the children's response is equally positive: they too want to act it out, immediately. One more story, one more paragraph of commentary, and then it's The End.

There's no final moralising, no pulling it all together, no eloquent peroration.

I returned to the start to read again the thoughts of Rena Wilson, director of a New Orleans nursery school and Paley's 1949 tutor in early childhood studies. What would she make, Paley wonders, of today's priorities, where "lessons have begun to replace play as the centrepiece of community life.

`Is it possible,' she might ask, `that work is now the play of children? No, this will never do'." And so say all of us.

Mary Jane Drummond was until recently a lecturer in education at Cambridge University. Readers can order A Child's Work, by Vivian Gussin Paley, for pound;10.50 plus pound;3.50 pamp;p by calling 01243 843262 and quoting `TES'

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