Vivian Paley on Acceptance and Rejection

Vivian Paley, Hyde Park Desk copy


From the REJECT Documentary Interview, PART 1

Vivian Paley is a featured expert in REJECT documentary, along with a special kindergarten classroom in Stillwater, Oklahoma that uses her rule, “you can’t say you can’t play.”  


Q. Can you talk about the concept of ‘rejection’ as an author, an educator and most importantly, someone who has worked with young children?

Vivian Paley:   In the classroom, the meaning of rejection is very clear. If you think about the meaning being in the mind of the person being rejected, it comes across from the earliest age, “Nobody likes me. They won’t play with me.” When the parent, so full of hopes, picks up the child on the first day or first week of preschool or kindergarten or first grade and hears these words, it strikes a great note of sadness.

With some, it goes back to his or her own early experiences, never forgotten. Oh, is my child going to have to go through that? It is the most serious event to be perceived.  They are rejecting me. This thing called school that I have looked forward to, been told to look forward to, and they’re not going to like me.  Because of course, before coming to school the child has had experiences, taken to the playground in the park and some strange child says, “no, you can’t play.” Some, unfortunately, even in their own family. But you don’t know what school is going to bring.  And you know how early children nowadays start off in school?  Their perspective is certainly very limited. It’s like the whole world is not going to play with me. So, it’s serious.

Q. What’s your definition of rejection?

Vivian Paley: Rejection is being made into an outcast.  In the classroom.  By one child, by many children, by a teacher, by other parents.  It’s being made into an outsider. Everyone comes to school essentially an outsider. Some continue to feel that they have been rejected. They have been told or shown that they do not fit into the mold that is accepted or acceptable. I would call that the picture of rejection.

Q. In You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, you write, “How casually one child determines the fate of another. By kindergarten, a structure begins to be revealed and will soon be carved in stone. ”   What is the impact of rejection on young children?

Vivian Paley: The child does not know what to do about it. The child has not yet developed an image of who he or she is out in public there.  And for the most part comes in with … even a child who is seen by the family to be shy or withdrawn …  comes in with great hopes for success. This is the way people talk about school. “Oh, you’re going to love it. You know. Daddy loved it. Mommy loved it”  And an element of doubt sets in about who I am.

If I may point to something rather interesting that I realized when I was re-reading my book, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play,  for the purpose of our discussion today. When the book was written, when the book was published in the early 1990’s, children spent a great deal of time in preschool and kindergarten playing. The idea of framing the concept of rejection and acceptance, of exclusion and inclusion, in terms of play was very obvious, logical.  It in fact was the only meaningful universal activity understood by everyone, known when you’re playing, when you’ve been told you can’t play.

The very interesting and very sad situation now, as people know if they have children in the schools, if they are teachers, if they even read the papers, is that the amount of play, free play, free choice play in preschool and kindergarten and first grade, but we’re talking about young children now who are novices, has been cut so profoundly, even when the rule is accepted.  I have been in preschools and kindergartens who proclaim and teach “You Can’t Say you Can’t Play” within ten minutes of play.

Well, this is a very complex set of social learnings and negotiations and understandings, almost like pleading your case before the Supreme Court.  All the children to each other, with hardly any time left in many places to play. Now imagine if the whole morning is taken up sitting at a table with worksheets or phonics or math, the stuff that takes up a young child’s time these days. What is it you can’t tell someone to do then? Well, “you can’t say, don’t sit next to me”? All right, but play, I chose play.   “You can’t say you can’t play” being the most universal and necessary developmental experience, now in such short supply in our schools, that the very opportunity the rule affords has been lessened.

Something for us to think about.  How do we find out who is being rejected then, so that we can correct it, if we don’t have the arena in which these human emotions are acted out, played out?

Q.  Do you think the possible upside could be that there would be less rejection? Or, does it just go underground if there’s less time for play?

Vivian Paley: Less opportunity to observe one another, human beings, in all kinds of natural behaviors. Less opportunity. Children tend to grow up now to a point where they can enter school without as much free time outdoors. It’s not safe enough. There’s no one to come out with you and watch you.  So that the early childhood years must provide human beings as they do all mammals, the way of getting to know how to survive with other human beings.  And the natural way, for all mammals, of course is play. To the human variety we add verbal storytelling in play. Pretend play. Imaginary play. Sounds pretty important.

And the arena in which to figure out, why does it make more sense to include our peers then to exclude them?  Simple question. Why? Not for any lecturing that will tell you.  But acted out in play over the early years and through the beginnings of school when you have more opportunities to feel the pleasure of including someone and being included. This is how you learn what kind of a person you want be and encourage others to be. Whether it’s worth defending someone else who’s being rejected and protesting for yourself. In other words, what’s the score? What’s the deal? How does it work? How come some people lead the pack and others are left behind watching.

Well, play actually acts out all of this in other characters.  Animals, good guys, bad guys, babies, mommies, princesses, monsters. All the roles get acted out. You have a chance to play every single role or will, if no one rejects you from play.

Q. If a child is rejected in play or in storytelling (and in the book you outlawed that), did you feel that it affected their academic ability?  Or did you feel like kids would still be able to ‘pioneer’ on through?  You saw some of them getting in their cubby and emotionally shutting down but did you see, maybe even literally, a direct connection to their ability to learn in the classroom?

Vivian Paley: I would say that to the extent that we envision how sadness makes us feel. Sadness combined with loneliness, that sense of no one caring about us. Children have the same feelings.

By the time you’re a grown up, maybe by the time you’re in high school, but I think certainly by the time we’re grownups, most of us have learned some ways of being able to concentrate on something else. Being able to concentrate on our work, concentrate on our families and still manage to struggle through, even if we’re sad.

Being rejected makes the young child sad.  Puzzled.  Very unsure of him or herself. For some children, the desire that we all know— to learn new things, to find out stuff from the teachers and to listen to other children—is so great, so strong, they will get through.

Will they not achieve as high a level as they might have? Intuition tells me that there’s no way of figuring this out. Some of our great creative people report very sad childhoods. There’s no way getting around it. And so that is a problem.  But for some children—am I going to say for half the class, what if it’s just for a third of the class—the distraction involved in these sad thoughts and the distraction involved in just watching and wondering if someone else is going to want to play with you.  Or creating some kind of behaviors that you think might get children to like you, and it turns out to have the opposite effect.  Certainly, it doesn’t get the teacher to like you.

Behaviors that may land you in some punishment situation.  Where it would seem as if the one who’s already been punished by the environment is being punished now for being the victim. Whatever that is, there is no question that for a certain percentage of every classroom, one’s concentration becomes lower and lower.  And sense of self worth.  It’s a vicious circle, I think. You begin to think less of yourself and you’re less likely to raise your hand and answer a question, let’s say.

In which case, the message gets out to the people who ask questions, and you’re called on less. So I would say, that since the goal of every classroom should be the support and protection of the child least likely to receive it as an entitlement, to the extent that that child is protected, the classroom is a moral place.

You come to school to learn.  Bottom line, that means, to the extent that you protect every child’s potential for learning, the classroom is a moral place.






















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