You Can’t Say You Can’t Play

by added on 5 March 2020, Comments Off on You Can’t Say You Can’t Play , posted in Blog
Maggie Homer, Parent Educator


I sat quietly on the floor in the book area, enjoying a hands-free moment at preschool when I observed a conversation among three children. Two of the children were playing a board game in the manipulatives area when another student approached who wanted to play. As the new student sat down, I overheard the words, “no, you can’t play with us.” The parent assigned to the area was attentive and handled the situation in a way that all three children began to play together, so I just sat there wondering what I would have said if I were the one who had to intervene. I honestly didn’t know.

One of the most challenging things about parenting (in my opinion) is knowing the right thing to say at the right time. When are we supposed to intervene, teach, and direct and when are we supposed to let our children work it out themselves? Most of the time I feel like I’m caught with my foot in my mouth, missing wonderful teaching opportunities. One way to capitalize on these moments is preparing for the situations before they unfold. Dr. Christy Brady-Smith shared a study (and sooo much more!) with us at our parent meeting last month. The study shares a key phrase that will allow you to be ready when you observe exclusionary play or the development of a social hierarchy.


The Study

In a study done by kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley, she observed that there were certain children in her classroom who were always being rejected and told over and over again they could not play. To stop this, she first implemented a classroom rule that children were able to play in whichever area they wanted, but all of a sudden nobody played in the areas where the rejected and neglected children were. In an effort to combat this social hierarchy from beginning at such a young age (and hoping to stop it from happening at all!), she coined the term “you can’t say you can’t play.” In her book by the same name, you can read the specifics of the study, however the overview of the results is most intriguing.


The Results

Paley observed that the rule had the biggest impact on the children who were excluding others. Why do you think that is? Did these children realize the children they were rejecting were fun and friendly? Did they notice how much they had in common with each other? Did they feel first-hand how good kindness and inclusion feel? It was as though the rule had rescued them from meanness. Paley reflects that there was a palpable sense of relief in the classroom. I mean, it has to be exhausting to a sweet 6-year old brain to feel like he has to maintain control and power among his peers. When that pressure was released, mandated by a teacher, every child benefitted.


What to Say and When

This study sheds light on when adults should intervene and what they should say. Dr. Brady-Smith shared that 10% of children are classified as rejected or neglected. When we observe one of those children in class, it is our responsibility to invite that child to play. When you see a child wandering the classroom with nowhere to go, we should jump at the opportunity to invite them to make art with us, read a book, or join in the board game being played with peers. Even though exclusion is not physically dangerous, it is emotionally dangerous. We should immediately address it as we would if one child were about to hit another in the head with a shovel. And when we see exclusion happening, we are now equipped with the words, “You can’t say you can’t play.” The more our young children hear this phrase and see it modeled, the more they will internalize it and take it with them as they move out of preschool, into elementary school, and on to the rest of their lives.


Change the World

In a world that has enough social hierarchies, exclusion, and rejection, it is our duty to our children and our community to do our best to break down these constructs at every chance. Now I know what I’ll say when I hear the words, “you can’t play.” I’ll quickly respond with a smile on my face, “you can’t say you can’t play” and then I’ll probably add something like, “it’s important everyone feels loved and included”, but that’s just me. And I’ll know that I’m rescuing one child from rejection, and another child from meanness, and that makes me feel like I’m changing the world.


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