You Can’t Say You Can’t Play

By Curtis J. Evans, Ph.D.

By Jonathan Kaneshiro, SPU Junior

You Can’t Say You Can’t Play
By Vivian Gussin Paley
Harvard University Press, 1993, 144 pp.

The social isolation of students in elementary and secondary classrooms is a sensitive — and important — topic. As a high school basketball player, I felt isolated by the way my coach treated me. No matter how hard I trained or practiced, I was always on the bench and never rewarded for my efforts.


To make matter worse, I felt like an outsider to all my teammates who were all in the same circle of friends. It felt like we never bonded — not a good feeling when the primary theme of a team is togetherness.


Since the passing of my high school basketball career, I have looked for ways to be a positive influence in children’s lives. After focusing my attention on coaching basketball, I decided to work toward an educational degree.


Reminiscent of my experience, the book, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, looks at the social isolation of kindergarten students in the classroom. In this book, Vivian Gussin Paley writes her views on the topic from her experiences as a teacher. Paley has a classroom full of bright students, but one skill they lack is respect. She notices that many of her students exclude others from games and other social activities. Many of these cases involve a child with a disability, racial, or physical appearance that makes them seem to the others as socially unacceptable.


Paley is aware of how detrimental rejection is to children, especially at a young age when children begin to seek friendships. In order to confront this issue, she presents a new rule in the classroom: You can’t say you can’t play. This new stand restricts anyone in the classroom from isolating others from activities. Paley documents her dreams and observations from her class, and creates fictional stories to teach her students about the consequences of social rejection. She uses a character named Magpie, a wise and friendly bird who models the behavior she strives for her students to achieve. In her stories, Magpie befriends other characters who are lonely and looking for friendship. As her stories progress, students slowly realize that it is wrong to exclude others from their activities.


While reading this book, I felt sympathy toward the students on both sides of the issue. First, I took solace in the isolated students because I understand how they might have felt. In my basketball experience, I, too, felt like an outsider in a place where togetherness and fellowship should have been the main theme.


I also looked back to my time spent in a public elementary school, and remembered students who seemed left out and alone. But understanding it is difficult to be the person who approaches and befriends the “black sheep” of the class, I also felt pity toward the students who socially rejected their classmates.


Obviously, kindergarten students are at the premature stages of learning manners, sharing, and small bits of social identity. They do not know that the peers who they mock could turn out to be someone worth getting to know.


In this circumstance, I found Paley’s tactics with her stories to be highly creative and affective. At such a young age, kindergarten students do not respond to monotonous scolding and lectures, yet they must discover the lesson learned on their own. Paley camouflaged her lessons with intriguing fictional stories. By taking this approach, students will come to the self-realization that they have been unfair.


As a future educator, I will use this book as a reference for my own classroom issues. It does not necessarily have to be an issue dealing with social rejection, but this book provides creative ways to resolve any situation. As a problem-solver, I usually take the route that is efficient, but not always the optimal choice. Dealing with issues similar to what Paley found in her classroom can be difficult. But lesson’s from Paley’s You Can’t Say You Can’t Play can help find solutions to issues that are not just reasonable or acceptable, but are the best choice.

AuthorJonathan Kaneshiro is a junior majoring in physical education at Seattle Pacific University. Originally from Kirkland, Washington, he hopes to teach elementary or high school after graduation, as well as continuing coaching basketball coach.


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