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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Book Review: A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play by Vivian Paley

What a stupid, pointless waste of my time. This book has no real argument. It's a lament to times gone by and an emotional appeal rather than a rational one. It's really annoying.

I hate it when people claim things like this author did at the beginning, "There was a time when play was king and early childhood was its domain." Really? When? Was that the "play" invented by the Victorians? Because I don't think she's referring to the middle ages. Or hunter gatherer tribes that exist today. But oooh, times were sooooo good once, weren't they? Cause your generation certainly ended up happy and well-adjusted from your amazing childhoods!

Lady, there is nothing natural or normal about a school setting or the behavior it inspires in children. You're a teacher? How about cracking open a history book?

This book had a lot of transcripts of conversations kids have with each other and I enjoyed those that involved real life practice (there were maybe 2). Most of the conversations were children attempting to understand the rules of good guys and bad guys and magical powers... and they just made me sad.

Some of the conversations were children using stories they had read to express their feelings. These also made me sad--children are crippled with zero vocabulary to discuss how they feel and can only express themselves through stories they have been read! Naturally what the author takes away from this is that children can ONLY express their emotions through stories.... Now, I have nothing against stories that don't confuse children about reality and don't teach them bad philosophy but SERIOUSLY? How about a little emotional education, instead?

There are times when the author gets it totally wrong what the children are talking about too. A lot of the time they are not expressing an emotion that they don't know how to express. They are trying to understand reality--do bad guys have mothers? Are bad guys allowed to have mothers?

My 2.5 year old doesn't actually know concepts like good guys and bad guys--he isn't being trained to think about the world in those terms. He does know words like afraid, puzzled, worried, sad, mad, etc. All the "ideas" she thinks kids can't understand unless they talk about them in the form of talking spiders and flying men! The author can't understand how children would be able to confront their fantasy villains without lots of fantasy play.... What I can't understand is why children have villains! Why do we teach our children to think about the world in these ways? It's so sad!

She says that superhero play is no different from the cowboy play that happened 50 years ago... I beg to differ. Philosophically they are similar, yes, they involve good guys and bad guys and our cultural myth of heroic man saving village. But for children they are very different. Cowboys were real--they didn't fly. They didn't have magic. They didn't rob children of their self-confidence in their ability to understand reality. (Well, they still did kind-of since, even though they were part of reality, they weren't part of most children't actual day-to-day reality.)

A lot of what this lady is lamenting isn't about fantasy play, it's about free time. Allowing children unstructured time to do with what they wish: that I totally agree with. Children who go to school are absolutely robbed of the personal development they would get with more free time.

But guess what? When you make children focus on all this total bullshit they are wasting years of their lives anyway. What kinds of questions do three-year-olds think about for a week: Can one see poison if she is invisible? Yeah, that's an important use of her time.

What was disturbing about this book was that the teacher doesn't just want to let the kids play--she wants to use their play, to control it. And granted, I have read about how play can be used to lengthen kids attention spans if you make them play what they are going to play before they play it and then have them stick to their game but... you gotta pick your side. This lady is on both sides. She wants kids to do more dramatic play AND she wants to control that play and use it to change the children. She argues like she is on the side of freedom for children and then having free time and enjoying life but... she's not. That's just lip service. There is a perfect example of this (her secret agenda) towards the end. She uses the Hobbit story to help children come to the conclusion that anyone with a magic ring would use it to do bad things. Which is why we need police men and government and parents to keep us all in line! Since we're all actually bad....

This author also thinks play is good so that children can always understand that they are just playing different roles and they can switch roles at any time. One last nail in the coffin for Standard American Parenting Experts. Why do you speak about training children to be inauthentic and out of touch with what they really feel like it's a good thing?

If only I could use play to trick this lady into learning some Non Violent Communication....


  1. This is tricky, I own this book as I was looking for books on play and this one was recommended to me. I enjoyed reading the conversations and play scenarios between the children, though I never did finish the book. I teach three year olds and they probably all watch superhero shows and the like at home. I hear a lot about it at school. As a future parent, and someone who has seen the negatives of allowing children to watch those shows, I will never do that to my young children. However, it's interesting when faced with the dilemma as a teacher. I have no control over what parents do in their home, and they rarely ever want to listen to advice or opinions that say otherwise. So my job is to help kids work through the confusions while in my classroom. Many times, this is done through pretend play. Them working out the scenarios on their own and coming to various conclusions. Often we talk about these things during our class meeting, which is led by the class not the teachers. They will acknowledge that superheros aren't real, that the bad guys are just pretend. But when asked, "How do you know who is pretending to be a bad guy?" They never have an answer.
    As a teacher, I allow the kids to work through the confusions through pretend play and conversations. I of course also teach emotions and my classrooms never use their superhero talk when upset, they are very in tune with their emotions and with talking to their peers about what they want/need. Typically during conflict resolution I can step back and allow the children to express why they are upset and what they want. They will then (eventually) find a compromise on their own in order to solve the conflict. Their abilities to express themselves are astounding, and typically are better than many adults I know.

    It's a hard scenario for teacher. If I had it my way they wouldn't be watching/learning about any of those things. Our pretend play would consist of real characters and real scenarios they can act our and explore. But I can't have it my way most of the time and still try my hardest to help facilitate the classes ability to express emotions.

    1. Hi Cynthia, I am not sure what you are wanting to express so let me make a few guesses to see if I have understood:
      -This book is potentially useful to teachers who do not get to control what children see at home and just have to deal with it once they get to school
      -Your job is to influence your students' pretend play in such a way that it serves them, not to judge their pretend play or tell their parents how to raise them, and my post doesn't recognize that aspect of your job
      -Children who are exposed to the good/bad world view are still able to be in tune with their emotions, express them and communicate them to others
      -Yay that you will never do that to your children. Can our kids hang out? :)
      -It sounds like you may enjoy working in a Montessori-type environment more?
      -You say if you had it your way your pretend play would consist of real characters and scenarios to act out and explore. I would love to hear more about that. (That is the kind of pretend play my son and I are doing right now and I love it!)
      -It has been such a struggle for me to find books that I feel good about sharing with him, if you have any recommendations please let me know!