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Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground

reviewed by Marcia L. Nell - August 30, 2010

coverTitle: Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground
Author(s): Deborah Meier, Brenda S. Engel, and Beth Taylor
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807750956, Pages: 144, Year: 2010
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“Parents, teachers, and other observers of children often wonder, “How did that idea ever get into her head?”  or “Where in the world did he learn about that?” or even “I never knew she was listening!”  You can never tell about children:  Things are going on in their heads during all their waking  (and possibly sleeping) hours, much of which would be surprising to adults.  Some of their thoughts and feelings see the light of day on the playground, expressed and represented in various ways…All the primary material, however, no matter what its inspiration, becomes significantly transformed through children’s imaginations.  Disparate elements are joined together, the magical and the realistic seamlessly interwoven“ (p. 11).

The authors of this book take the reader along on a journey to a place familiar to many and forgotten for some.  The rich detailed dialogue of the children on the playground clearly illustrates the children’s process for using the safety of the play space to express how they are making sense of their worlds.  This dialogue serves to awaken in the perceptive reader the realization of how imperative it is for knowing-adults to make sure these types of experiences are being provided for all children.  “The excerpts give immediacy to the playground scenes, bringing the reader close to the action.  The experienced reader (and we’ve all experienced childhood) will recognize the authenticity of these reports “from the field” (p. 11).

The book is written in two parts.  The first section, Part I:  Sources of Play, consists of four chapters that focus on general thematic areas depicted on the playground and through the play dialogues.  The first chapter centers on the theme of families.    Several insights were drawn from children’s play.  First, even though the children in this school were from urban settings, their image of the “one-family house” was prevalent in their play.  “The ‘idea’ of house, its meaning to children, seems to have little to do with the reality of their daily experience, more to do with a focus for values like family, food, warmth, safety, and protection.  In their house play, children act out these values” (p. 13).  The need for routine and order was also a value depicted in the children’s play.  The children placed value on “predictability” in their play and found it to be comforting.  “In a fast-moving, often unstable society, predictability represents stability and ongoingness as opposed to surprise, change, and upheaval” (p. 18).   Family relationships and tensions were also captured during the children’s play collected through their own personal experiences in their out-of-school lives and by combining other distant sources.  Children were trying to understand and make meaning about death, parent abandonment, and family separations.  “Ideas and impressions from multiple sources seep into the children’s heads, where they are absorbed, interpreted, and transformed in play.  Sharing the onus of particularly painful or frightening feelings by acting them out can relieve some of the associated stress” (p. 22).

The second chapter featured play scenes where children were acting out Scary Stuff.    Danger and high drama are common themes in children’s play.   The children were able to act out their feelings of fear because they had safety mechanisms built into their play.  Several places such as the walls, or door, or tree on the playground were designated as safety zones.  Children could reside there when they needed a breather from the excitement of the moment.  “An imaginary wolf lurking outside the bedroom door or even hiding under the bed at night is terrifying; in the light of the day, a similar wolf, though still scary, can be controlled or outwitted, allowing the child the upper hand and a comforting sense of power…The escape valve for the traditional childhood compact ‘let’s pretend,’ is a return to everyday reality” (p. 29).

The Environment of the playground itself promoted special styles of play.  For example, the children worked collaboratively in Digging the Hole.  The children used shovels, trowels, hoes, and rakes in their “excavation.”  The children exhibited a total fascination with the excavation and were totally focused, engaged, and curious about the possibilities the hole presented to them.  Their imaginations were intrigued with the finds:  rocks, or a meteorite, or a treasure of gold.  The children also made connections with the curriculum within the school building through the excavation by experiencing on a concrete level of “basic physical principles such as leverage, resistance, inertia, gravity, and balance”(p. 42).  But one of the most important lessons children learned was regarding their own sense of safety.  There is a certain amount of risk involved in play and the authors shared a quote from a sign outside a playground in Wales which explained to parents and others attending the playground that it was designed “so your child can develop an appreciation of risk in a controlled play environment rather than taking similar risks in the uncontrolled and unregulated wider world” (p. 44).  This is an extremely important lesson for all children to learn.  On the playground, as in the real world, there are risks and children need to understand what types of actions are too risky and could cause bodily harm.  Many times adults want to protect children and keep them too safe.  Protection and safety are important but not at the expense of children not fully understanding the relationship between their actions and taking the “responsibility for their own safety with the tacit understanding that it was in their own interest not to get hurt” (p. 44).  

In chapter 4, “The Curriculum,” evidence was cited that showed how the inside meets the outside.  The “imagination, by definition, is the making of images, and imagination was actively at work as children enriched their outdoor play with what they had learned indoors in the classrooms” (p. 63).  The children were able to apply what they were learning beyond the four walls of their classrooms.  Using imagination and wonder as an impetus, children worked through misconceptions and misunderstandings of the inside curriculum through their play with each other.  “Evidence and logic were frequently and intentionally combined with magical thinking by children of all ages.  Facts and fancy coexisted easily when the demands of a particular drama made it desirable” (p. 63).  

In the second part of the book, Aspects of Play, “the opportunities and responsibility of public education include preparing children for active, participatory citizenship in a democracy.  In our view, this includes encouraging them to become independent thinkers, take intellectual chances, exercise their imaginations, and indulge in creative ‘wishful thinking.’  For children in school, developing these intellectual habits requires practice in a safe, encouraging environment – both within the school’s walls and outside on the playground” (p. 65).  The authors describe how many children enter elementary school with very few opportunities or experiences that encourage imaginative thinking, inventing, discovering, or envisioning other possibilities.  Children are given toys that leave little to the imagination to invent or discover.  The authors urge a return to “kindergartens in which young children can play freely with both material and ideas” (p.68).  It is through play that children learn about the basic principles of “fairness” in respect to both the individual and the community.  This sense of fairness along with equity and freedom are the foundations of a democratic society.   Children need to experience how these principles influence the way we live our daily lives.  

In chapter 6, “Laws, Rules and Understandings,” the authors make a very viable point about the need for adults to have a better understanding about play and its relationship to reality.  Children understand that play is a parallel form of their own reality and the play itself does not meander too far from it.  One of the purposes of imaginative play is “to test the familiar, everyday world, not to create a ruleless world without predictable patterns” (p. 74).   By creating this parallel world children are able to experiment with social rules.  

The authors make an impassioned plea for the right of children to have play in their lives.  They use dialogue among children, which richly depicts how important play is to the development of children and how playing impacts adults as we strive to live in a democratic society.  Play is a tool by which children make meaning of their world in a context that not only allows but fosters the child’s imagination, inventiveness, discovery and encourages the child’s sense of wonder.  “At a time in history when we are crying out for creative alternatives to seemingly intransigent problems, it may prove more perilous than we imagine to cut off at an early age the natural human tendency to seek alternatives, to imagine other viewpoints, to invent solutions that take into account the “wrong” but intriguing answers.  Without being able to read the future, we suspect that early-childhood play and imagination may be more central to our viability as a species than current educational practice suggests” (p. 107).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 30, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16123, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 3:51:26 AM

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About the Author
  • Marcia Nell
    Millersville University
    E-mail Author
    MARCIA L. NELL is an assistant professor at Millersville University in Millersville, PA, where she teaches early childhood courses and supervises student teachers. Her research interests include play and creativity across the life cycle, Professional Development Schools, parent involvement, and teacher education programs. She also serves as the Director of Research and Professional Development for the Institute for Self Active Education. Marcia conducts Hands, Heart, and Mind play workshops and symposiums. She was a public school teacher in the primary grades for twenty-five years.
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