Friday, August 21, 2009

I Triple Dog Dare You - And Other Exciting Playground Rules

Everyone knows that if you are "triple-dog dared" you just have to do it, right? We all know you can spray yourself or draw a force field to keep the "cooties" off too. When I was in elementary school, we had the "Naked Machine." If you stood on a certain vent and someone pushed a button, then you were naked, no questions asked, and it didn't matter that you still had all your clothes on either - you were naked. About 15 years later I was visiting my parents and walked through the school playground during recess, and, sure enough, someone was on that vent and the "Naked Machine" was still in operation!! I couldn't believe it. Are these really logical and sound rules and procedures for your playground? Of course not!

We do have lots of rules, though, to make play-time fun, safe, and fair for everyone. We help the children understand the rules and what to do if they are having trouble. We help the children when the problems are beyond what they can handle themselves. We work with the whole class and with individuals. We use stories and role playing to help the children understand empathy, fairness, cooperation, etc. So why is it, then, that year after year, we continue to address the same problems, sometimes problems that continue to pop back up throughout a school year? And sometimes the problems continue year after year throughout the grade levels.

During the July 2009 Constructing Modern Knowledge I was fortunate to be able to interact with educator Deborah Meier. She gave us some suggested resources ("Write this down," she would I did.) One of the educators she spoke about was Vivian Gussin Paley, and she suggested we read her book You Can't Say You Can't Play. It took me about two days to read - it's a quick read.

You really have to read the book to appreciate the discussions and debates Paley and her kindergarteners and the children from grades 1-5 had regarding the rule "you can't say you can't play." They wondered--Is this a fair rule and would it work?

So, do you think this is a fair rule, and do you think this would work in your classroom or school? Would you like this rule applied to you, either as an adult or thinking of yourself as an elementary school student? Remember, that would mean that you couldn't tell anyone they couldn't play with you, and no one could tell you that you couldn't play with them (or anyone else).

If you think about it quickly, it sounds great - everybody gets to play. But then you have to consider all the "what ifs" that will certainly occur in a social arena. What if someone is mean to me? What if I only want to play with my best friend? What if the teams are too big? What if the boys only want to play with boys and the girls only with girls?

But also consider: What if one child is always excluded, day after day, year after year? What if there is always one child who decides who plays and who doesn't - one day you're "in" and the next day you're "out"? What if someone wants to play with your best friend and your best friend wants to play with someone else but doesn't want to hurt your feelings.

I'm not sure if this rule is fair or if it would work in my second grade classroom. I do know that for the last nine years of teaching, it is certain that there are problems that occur at recess and free play times because the children exclude some, create cliques (even at this young age), test their social powers, and still need help learning how to join in with a group. As Vivian Gussin Paley suggests, a public school is a public place. If you want to play exclusively with your close friends, you can arrange to connect outside of the school day. But school is not the place for exclusion.

What do you think...I'm still deciding...I wonder what my students think...I'm going to ask them...


  1. Did you just hear this on This American Life? It's an interesting concept, but I wonder why a child can't pick her own friends? Some children are excluded for superficial reasons that can be fixed--hygiene, clothing, etc. Some kids are excluded because no one helped them with social skills--and that can be helped as well, but I'm not sure the classroom is the place.

    But I'm not sure I really trust Paley's reporting. She also claims that gender roles disappeared.

  2. I heard of the book in July and was curious about the concept. I would like to find out what the children think of this rule and how it would play out, but I have to say that I can't imagine that it would work - but maybe that is because I am thinking as an adult???

    I will say, however, that I have seen those who lack social skills (even though they get extra support from adults) who continue to be excluded and picked on at recess, year after year. They are the easy targets. At our school we try to help those who are needy but also we try to help those who are not considered needy to speak out against an injustice when they see it. Children, especially young children, do not always understand how to do this and need help learning how. But there are those for whom recess and other social situations continue to be painful. That is why I wonder what this "rule" would do to the environment.

    I have had many instances over the years, too, when the social trouble of recess spills into the classroom and disrupts the learning that needs to take place. So although we can't fix everything, we do need to take the social health of our children into consideration not only because it affects them emotionally, but also because it affects them academically.

    I did hear from one person (don't remember who, sorry) via Twitter who said his/her child's school had this rule and it seemed to make a positive difference.