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Young pretenders

Books by US early-years educationist Vivian Gussin Paley are always eagerly received in the UK. In this extract from 'A Child's Work', published this week, she explains why make-believe should remain central to children's learning, especially since 911

We perform a grave error when we remove fantasy play as the foundation of early childhood education. We are going too far in the opposite direction.

Some school people feel that because young children engage in magical thinking we must pull them on to another track as early as possible; having added extra years of schooling to their lives, we are emboldened to counteract fantasy play with "reality-based" activities.

Is this not the adult version of magical thinking? To imagine that the purpose of early childhood education is to re-order the stages of human development is like the story of the prince who was turned into a frog. In attempting to turn children into creatures who are unchildlike, we ignore all the messages young children give us as they play. The frog turns back into a prince when the princess recognises his need to be treated with kindness and respect.

In the case of our children, this would include the kindness of acknowledging that their perceptions and premises are not the same as older children's or as our own.

Take the simple game of musical chairs. To one second-grader (Year 2 pupil) the game is "no big deal". He told me: "Look, first there's one chair for each player. You keep taking away chairs and end up with one guy - hopefully me - sitting on one chair. He wins, everyone else loses. See? No big deal."

Pre-school and kindergarten (reception) children see musical chairs quite differently, I discovered. First, the game must be in the form of a story and second, no one is ever to be left without a chair. Evie, age four, having seen the game at a birthday party, brought it to Snow White's birthday celebration in the doll corner. The bursts of laughter from the five boys and girls marching around a play-dough cake drew my attention.

"Hi-ho, hi-ho, the dwarfs we go, we go!" they sang, plopping down on chairs after each go-around. It was clearly a game of musical chairs except that every dwarf and Snow White always found a seat. Thinking I could add a touch of maturity to the game, I offered to show the group another way to play. "This is the way the older children play," I said. "It's the real musical chairs."

"This is the real musical chairs," Evie corrected me.

"I know, but may I show you another way to play the game?" I placed the chairs in a more orderly line and asked everyone to sit down. "Now, so far it's the same. But watch, I'm taking one chair away. The next time you march around one of you won't find a chair."

"Why?" several children asked.

"That's the fun of it, the surprise, you could say. Let's begin and you'll see how it works." Bringing back the chair, I sang several choruses of "Hi-ho" while everyone marched around, somewhat suspiciously. When I stopped singing there was a chair for everyone and the children relaxed enough to give a small laugh.

"OK, now next time when I stop singing, someone won't find a chair, remember? That person can come and stand by me." I again removed a chair and sang the song twice as the children cautiously moved around. I could see that I had made their joyous game into a lesson but it was too late to stop. "Hi-ho, hi-ho, the dwarfs we go, we go! OK, find a seat!"

Evie was left standing. "Where's Evie's chair?" Sam called out. "She's Snow White! It's her birthday."

I apologised to Evie and brought back the chair. "Sorry. I didn't mean to spoil the party."

"It's OK," Evie sniffed. "We're doing the next part now. Where the prince comes."

In September, the fives and I went on to kindergarten together. In the midst of an actual birthday party, the mother of the celebrant suggested a game of musical chairs. "We always did this at parties when I was young, Talia. You'll love it," Mrs Gliddon said, offering to be in charge of the music system.

Mrs Gliddon's enthusiasm carried the children around for two complete turns, with the losers solemnly positioning themselves on my lap. But then Talia was the one who couldn't find a chair and instantly we were back to where we had been a year earlier. "Talia can't be out," several children notified Mrs Gliddon. "It's her birthday. Not fair!"

Suddenly aware of the injustice, Talia burst into tears. "It's not really unfair, darling," her mother said gently. "This is just the way it's played, you know." Talia nodded but continued to cry until her mother assured her the game was over and it was time for cupcakes. "But first, let's do the game once more with all the chairs put back, OK? Then you and everyone can find a seat." Talia hugged her mother and skipped over to her friends as if a great burden had been removed.

"But where's the challenge?" Mrs Gliddon whispered to me as we placed the cupcakes on trays. "It seems so babyish for kindergarten."

Our student teacher, Anna, joined the conversation. "I think it's just not fun for them if anyone is left out. And anyway, pretending things is always better. This has been the amazing part of kindergarten for me. If I want the kids to pay attention I just say pretend we're going to do it and then we really do it. Pretend we're counting blocks, pretend we're lining up in the straightest line ever."

Talia's mother was doubtful. "Aren't you sort of tricking them?"

"It doesn't feel that way at all," was Anna's reply. "No, just the opposite. It feels like I'm respecting them. I'm taking into account how they feel and what makes them comfortable."

The next day, after dropping the children off in gym, I stopped off at a second-grade classroom. "May I ask the children a question? Is this a convenient time?"

Assured that it was, I described the musical chairs game as preferred by the nursery school and kindergarten children.

"Are you surprised?" I asked the students.

"Sounds boring to me," a boy said. "Doing it the regular way is no big deal, is it? Someone wins, someone loses."

"Yeah, for us, but not for little kids," a girl said. "My little brother, we always do things different with him so he won't think something bad is going to happen. Like if he's tired and we have to walk somewhere, we tell him pretend you're a puppy and we're taking you for a walk. Then he's happy. My mother got the idea from The Boxcar Children. The older kids, remember how they were so nice to their little brother, always pretending stuff and all?"

The girl didn't wait for me to offer an explanation. "See, you're playing with them." She studied her teacher, then looked around at her classmates.

"Maybe it's hard to remember if you don't have a little brother or sister at home, but you're really incredibly young in kindergarten. See, we forget how it was, how many things scared us. Little kids have to be treatedI uh, well, sort of like they're not really in school yet, you know. Then, in first grade, things really start to be different."

"How about in second grade?" the teacher asked.

A boy spoke up. "Yeah, we'd like to play more. It gets hard sometimes."

The teacher smiled. "I know," she said. "We really do need more time to play."

Trisha Lee is a London theatre producer and director who has become intrigued by the play and stories of young children. "I sense the magic created in a classroom," she writes. "Sometimes the hush in the room when a child's story is acted out equals the spine-chilling feelings in an audience during a show in a big theatre."

Miss Lee writes to me about her experiences as a drama teacher in a number of London schools where she uses the children's own stories as stage plays.

"The other day a child in the reception class in Myatt Garden (a primary school in the London borough of Lewisham) told me a story," she reports.

"He had worked with me in the nursery class the previous year and knew the technique well.

"This is his story: 'Once upon a time there was a plane and he was going to crash into a building and make an explosion and all the people were hurt.

And they got to die and then the firemen came and then the firemen put out the fire.'" Her letter is dated December 5, 2002. Nearly 15 months after the attack on the World Trade Centre, children continue to examine the explosion seen around the world. Whereas the "911" symbol may initiate discussions among adults, for children it will not suffice. They are compelled to communicate their feelings in more dramatic ways.

The letter continues: "When we came to do the story the children were totally engaged. I felt unsure, out of my depth, especially since the teachers didn't seem to expect the story. They had no idea the children were even aware of September 11. Could we deal with this issue with five-year-olds? I worried about trivialising a serious event but decided to trust the child who told the story. He wanted to be the plane and he showed me where he wanted the building to be. He was very clear about the stage directions, so we started acting it out.

"The boy, as the plane, flew to the spot where the building was and then gently curled up in a ball on the floor. I brought up five children to play the people. They took their roles of being hurt very seriously and when I read 'they got to die' they lay down in total silence. The room was hushed.

Then I called up another five children as firemen who walked among the bodies of their classmates, holding hoses and putting out the fire. We all watched in stunned silence.

"It was the closest I've been to tears in the children's storytelling and acting. Then a girl asked, 'Can we do it again?' I said, 'I'm curious to know why you are so keen to do that story again.' She came and sat next to me and she said, 'Because it's really interesting.'

"So we did it again. Because the child was right, where I was confused. The children knew we had tapped into something really powerful, something that school and adults don't often let us tap into, a way of exploring our fears and the things we don't understand. But it also meant something else, that school was a place where you could feel very personally involved.

"For all my years in the theatre and my belief in its value, I feel that right now I'm able to see its truest and deepest value. How amazing that this lesson comes from the age group listened to the least."

A few days later, I read Trisha Lee's letter from England to a group of pre-school teachers. No one doubts the authenticity of the children's voices nor is anyone surprised by the ability of four and five-year-olds to enact the story in so respectful a manner.

"But what if they only care to do the violent parts?" a teacher asks. "Just the explosions and shooting and knocking things down? That's what makes me uncomfortable and I want to stop the play, and even the stories."

"OK, but here's another what-if," I say. "What if you pretend you are a theatre director and the children are your actors? And what if, having stopped the explosion, you say 'Once upon a time, what happened? Tell us exactly what happens before and after the explosion and what role you want to play. We'll get it all written down and talked about and let the story come out'."

Our pretend theatre director and her actors understand equally well that an explosion is merely a single event and "bang-bang" is not the whole story.

It is not interesting enough. The what and the how of every story is deserving of our combined attention, determined visualisation, and repetition, no less so in this tale than in the one about Cinderella or Peter Rabbit.

I bring the letter from England when I next visit Nisha Ruparel-Sen's class at the University of Chicago laboratory schools, and read the London boy's story, along with the description of its dramatisation.

The moment I finish, Kostos jumps up. "Can we do it?" he asks. "Can we do it just the same way as those kids? I really want to do that, OK?"

"Sure we can. Do you mind telling me why you want to do the story in the same way?"

Kostos considers my question for a moment, then spreads his arms and flies to the centre of the carpet. "Because it's really, really interesting. And then next time, the firemen have to rescue the people, OK?"

The indomitable spirit of fantasy play lies in wait. When kept under the cloud of disapproval, as with any social, linguistic, or logistical skill, a period of practice may be useful. But the imagination is a dependable ally and the children's natural desire to tell a story, act in a story, listen to a story, and expand the story comes to the rescue. Then life in the classroom really becomes interesting.

In my next letter to Trisha Lee I describe the children's re-enactment of her September 11 story. "Funny thing," she writes back, "how anything put into a story comes back round. So here's another one, also from a five-year-old, that shows how children see the world."

"'Once upon a time there was a bird. And he was flying around his nest and then he seed a tree what looked shiny. And then he called his mum and told his mum he seed a shiny tree. And then his mum told him, "There's no such thing as a shiny tree anywhere!" and he said "There is!" and his mum came to look. And his mum seed it and she told him "Let's pick all the shiny leaves off the tree." So they did.'" "The image I found so strong was how the mum had not believed the bird and then when she finally sees the tree she had to pick all the leaves off so the shiny tree is no more. How easy it is for us to dismiss the children's play and stories as irrelevant make-believe and how children's creativity is eventually picked off by adults belittling and correcting till the child's tree is no more."

It is more than a funny thing, the way "anything put into a story comes round back." Once the storytelling habit grows strong it becomes a seamless process of invention and interpretation.

I can see Mrs Ruparel-Sen reading the shiny-tree story to her children, who are eager to act out the roles of the little bird, the doubting mum, and the remarkable tree. Do the children wonder why the mother bird does not believe her child? And then, when she comes to inspect the tree, why is she determined to alter its most unique feature?

But these are my questions; the children will better recognise the secret twists and turns that help protect a child's fantasies from other versions of reality. How fortunate to be a teacher present at the creation and ready to carry on while the children revise and replay the endless possibilities suggested by a magical tree and a little bird who has the keys to the kingdom.

From A Child's Work: the importance of fantasy play by Vivian Gussin Paley, published by the University of Chicago Press, pound;13.50. )2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.Readers can order a copy for pound;10.50 plus pound;3.50 pamp;p by calling 01243 843262 and quoting the reference 'TES'. Vivian Paley grew up in Chicago in the 1930s and spent her 37 years as a nursery and kindergarten teacher, mostly in the University of Chicago's laboratory schools, where she continues to research the stories and play of young children. She recently received an Outstanding English Language Arts Educator award from the US National Council of Teachers of English, the latest in a series of accolades including the American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1998. Of her many books about the life of the classroom, those best known in the UK are In Mrs Tully's Room: a childcare portrait, White Teacher and The Girl with the Brown Crayon (all Harvard University Press). Look out for a review of A Child's Work in next week's Friday magazine

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