A few weeks ago, while surfing around websites of the amazing educators who blog, tweet, and fill the internet with humor and ideas, I stumbled upon a book called A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play by Vivian Gussin Paley. Ms. Paley worked as a kindergarten teacher for over forty years at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and received numerous awards and accolades, so I figured she knew what she was talking about.

With the emphasis on academics growing stronger than ever and many feeling like kindergarten is becoming first grade, kindergarten teachers are always feeling like we need to defend the importance of play. We all know deep down the importance of play to our little sprouts, but sometimes articulating it can be difficult. A Child’s Work does just that… and beautifully I might add.

Reading her book (it’s a slim quick read), I kept discovering deeper layers of the importance of play. Writing specifically about play in kindergarten, Ms. Pulley states, ‘Here the children have a clear view, for the firs time, of the pecking order in school society. For these insights and others, the kindergarten year can be an exceptionally productive period, the culmination of years of early social observations and fantasy play. By kindergarten, children have the added patience, experience, and vocabulary with which to carry the plot and the characters to places they have never been before…”

Ms. Pulley isn’t opposed to teaching academics per se, she just feels fantasy play shouldn’t fall to the wayside, ‘However, since fantasy play is the glue that bind together all other pursuits, including the early teaching of reading and writing skills, I am compelled to put it on display as clearly as I can… It is in the development of their themes and characters and plots that children explain their thinking and enable us to wonder who we might become as their teachers.  If fantasy play provides the nourishing habitat for the growth of cognitive, narrative, and social connectivity in young children, then is is surely the staging area for our common enterprise: an early school experience that best represents the natural development of young children.’

Filled with anecdotes from her own classrooms as well as her observations in other rooms, she finds amazing insight in the conversations and revelations of her students.

Frederick once told me that the single word “Frederick” was his entire story. This seemed insufficient to me. “What do you do in the story?” I asked.
“You could go to school.”
“Just Frederick?” That was it, there would be no more. I asked the other children about his story. “Is anything different?”
“Because he’s Frederick,” Libby answered. She was four.
“The story has only one word, you notice,” I persisted.
“It’s not one word,” said John, “It’s one person.”
Of course. A person is a story. Everyone in the class understood that.

Ms. Pulley is concerned about the fate of fantasy play in our early childhood classrooms too. She writes, ‘But today fantasy play is at the barricades with fewer and fewer teachers willing to step up and defend the natural style and substance of early childhood, the source of all this vocabulary building and image decoding and Socratic questioning.’

A Child’s Work has led me to rethink the time and quality of play in my kindergarten classroom. I’ve already started to think of ways to increase the time allotted to play and ways to better document and interact with my sprouts during their play. If you work with young children, I can’t recommend this title enough. Oh, and Ms. Pulley has many other books I can’t wait to dive into.