Play is the work of childhood. – Piaget
One of the biggest perks of teaching preschool is you get to play – really play – with the experts. Four-year-old humans know more about play than any adults. If you promise to respect the play and not try to turn it into work, they are more than happy to let you play, too. But, please, don’t screw it up by asking stupid questions like, “How many logs are holding up those planks, Julieta?” Count them yourself if you want to know – we are playing here.
Turns out, young humans aren’t the only creatures who are play experts. I recently had the opportunity to spy on a mama fox and her kits. It was like watching a good teacher observing her kids on the playground – staying close by to make sure nothing terrible happened, but letting the kids direct their own play. The kits rompled and tussled, never straying too far from the den, obviously having all kinds of rough-and-tumble fox fun.
In both cases – kids and kits – play is all about learning about the world. But to the little ones, it is just about having fun.
And fun is a key component of play. In my family, we have a saying: “If it was all fun it would be called play, not work.” The corollary is: “There is a reason they pay you to go to work – you wouldn’t do it for free.”
The difference between play and work is not learning something or doing something hard. Play can be hard and you can certainly learn from it. The differences between play and work are twofold: you get to choose and it is fun.
So what does this have to do with books? I mean, books are OK, but are they the stuff of play? Well, it depends on the book. Some books just beg to be played in addition to being read, with all the play value of a giant mud puddle, a dump truck, and some snow shovels. And, while the stories are being played, kids just might learn something about teamwork, self-reliance, and integrity.
This month, at The Lamp-Post, we are looking at books that show that stories are part of play. The titles include:
8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = Chaos by Vivian Vande Velde
Nim’s Island by Wendy Orr
Hoot by Carl Hiaasen
All three books have elements of play that will appeal to young readers – and not-so-young readers, too.
We’ll start first with 8 Class Pets which takes the cumulative tale form found in so many playful picture books, extending the riff into a short, illustrated novel. You know those cumulative tales – books like the Jan Brett classic The Mitten where a parade of forest animals climbs in an ever expanding mitten, or the bizarre There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly brilliantly presented by Simms Tabak. These rhythmic stories start simply enough, but every page turn adds a new plot point, building to a rollicking conclusion. Vande Velde adopts a similar form when Twitch the squirrel, fleeing an owl, accidentally steps on a dog’s nose.
This is the same banner that tells the children School is open again after the summer.
Someone was obviously telling me School was open for me to escape from the dog.
Didn’t I say the people here love squirrels?
So for the first time in my life, I ran into School.
That owl veered away and flew off into the evening.
But the dog followed me in.
See – young readers and listeners know right away that an adventure has begun. As Twitch tries to evade the angry dog, he moves from one classroom to the next, adding class pets to the tale at every turn. From Green Eggs and Hamster, the math-loving first grade rodent, to Galileo and Newton, the science lab geckos, all the animals lend their expertise to Twitch as he tries to outwit the dog.
So, where’s the play? The cumulative tale format is so popular in picture books because kids love predicting what is going to happen next. It helps them feel like part of the action. 8 Class Pets works the same way. What’s going to happen when the fish tank gets caught on the dog’s leash? How are the animals going to work together to trap the dog?
Read aloud so it becomes a group experience, this story can be the fodder for creative, imaginative play. Young kids love to pretend to be animals, especially animals with as much personality as Vande Velde gives her pets. The know-it-all Miss Lucy Cottontail and the dexterous Sweetie the Rat are just begging to be acted out. As an added bonus, there are tons of options for STEM and art play with this book. Head outside with some big pieces of cardboard, paints, a scooter for the fish, a box for trapping the dog, and some other random props and let the play explode. Will the kids be messy when it is all over? Yes, yes they will. Will they be happy? Yes – especially if they are given the choice to morph the play into something of their own creation. Will they learn something about working together to keep the play going and the power of storytelling for big belly laughs? They sure will. And, don’t be surprised if the antics of the ten animals in this story (and the lessons about teamwork) continue well past your time with the book.
Wendy Orr’s Nim’s Island invites similar creative, dramatic play for a slightly older group of children. It tells the story of young Nim who lives on a tropical island with her dad, off the grid except for the satellite that makes email possible (a nice twist). She is friends with a sea lion named Selkie, an iguana named Fred, and a sea turtle named Chica. Together they work in the garden and maintain their shelter, and they play in the water with made-up games like coconut soccer. Later, Nim has to save her island from meddling tourists and rescue a bumbling author from the ocean.
Orr writes the book with such a play-filled voice, it invites readers and listeners to imagine living in Nim’s world. Here is Nim just after her father has sailed off to do some science experiments, leaving her to her own devices for three whole days:
“And what we need first,” said Nim, “is breakfast!” So she threw four ripe coconuts thump! into the sand and climbed down after them.
Then she whistled her shell, two long, shrill notes that carried far out to the reef, where the sea lions were fishing. Selkie popped her head above the water. She had a fish in her mouth, but she swallowed it fast and dived toward the beach.
And from a rock by the hut, Fred came scuttling. Fred was an iguana, spiky as a dragon, with a cheerful snub nose. He twined round Nim’s feet in a prickly hug.
“Are you saying good morning,” Nim demanded, “or just begging for breakfast?”
Fred stared at the coconuts. He was a very honest iguana.
This is the stuff of elementary school dreams! Climbing coconut palms, befriending animals, being the hero with no need for adults – all the ingredients that could sustain creative playground or backyard games for weeks on end, so long as the resident grown-ups respect the creative power of the play. Don’t be like my daughter’s elementary school teacher who decided that fifth graders were too old for world-building dramatic play. Oh no! They should play kickball instead – really. People, don’t do this. If kids are engaged in creative group-based play, stand back like Mama Fox and make sure nothing terrible happens. And let them play.
OK – so play is all fine for those little elementary school children. Middle school kids, though, they are all business. Got to learn that biology and read Important Books – no time for foolish play. That certainly seems to be the philosophy of our education system that has decided kids magically no longer need space to breathe and relax and play after age eleven. Sure, adults grab a coffee and play Candy Crush on their phones for a break, but twelve year olds should work straight through the school day, with maybe 30 minutes for lunch – not to mention do homework when they get home. It really is a wonder they don’t organize and go on strike. And, maybe after reading Hoot, they will.
Hoot is Carl Hiaasen’s first book for young readers, and it won the Newbery Honor in 2003. Hiaasen’s protagonist, Roy Eberhardt, is new to Coconut Cove, Florida and he isn’t happy about leaving Montana. He quickly gets drawn into some mischief-making at the construction site of a new Mother Paula’s Pancake House that happens to be the nesting area for rare – and endangered – burrowing owls. He joins forces with Beatrice Leep, the toughest kid at Trace Middle School, and her step-brother (who goes by Mullet Fingers) to save the owls. Mullet Fingers leads the charge using some rather unconventional methods, including putting alligators in the jobsite port-a-potties, painting the windows of a squad car, and removing the seats of the bulldozers. It culminates in an old-fashioned protest with Trace Middle School’s students carrying signs and singing songs and making real change for the little owls.
Now, this book might not generate days of dramatic play on the playground – mostly because we don’t release middle schoolers to the playground nearly as much as we should. But, it is just the kind of playful scenario that tweens and young teens love – the chance to stick it to hapless adults who can’t seem to do anything right, with a side order of humiliating the school bully. In Hoot, Hiaasen enlists these kids in his never-ending quest to shine a light on self-interested blowhards and cowards and to rally good folks to do something about the problems in their communities. In all of Hiaasen’s books for young readers (six to date), he appeals to kids’ naturally occurring righteous indignation and their inclination toward subversiveness. Really, middle schoolers are the perfect radicals, before they become jaded by the world. Consider this eloquent speech from Mullet Fingers:
“Ever since I was little,” Mullet Fingers said, “I’ve been watchin’ this place disappear – the piney woods, the scrub, the creeks, the glades. Even the beaches, man – they put up all these giant hotels and only goober tourists are allowed. It really sucks.”
Roy said, “Same thing happens everywhere.”
“Doesn’t mean you don’t have to fight back.”
(Want to join the fun? The same themes run through his books for adults, too!)
Playful stories provide the formative experience necessary to imagine a different – and better – world. Little kids who romp through books like The Mitten and 8 Class Pets grow to be kids who create faraway lands with iguanas for pets. And, maybe – if we’re lucky – they will become kids who demand a world that values nature over pancake profits, ready to lead the charge.
I have murky memories of the assigned reading from my school days – starting with the Dick and Jane primers, and going through The Scarlet Letter, Crime and Punishment, and so on. What did I learn from reading these books? That teachers hate kids? That the only “valuable” books are by old dead white guys? That characters in those dusty books could have benefited from some quality mental health care and maybe some play? I sure didn’t fall in love with reading because of them. In fact, they just about beat the love of reading right out of me. Let’s not perpetuate this mistake with the next generation. Let the kids play by letting them choose play-filled books – and just maybe they’ll end up changing the world.
What are your memories of assigned reading? (Anyone else subjected to Dostoyevsky for summer reading?) Did those books encourage creative play or imaginative flights of fancy? What playful books do you recommend to young (and not so young) readers? Other ideas for joining the forces of play and story to build readers? We’d love to hear from you! Find us on all of your favorite social media platforms @readtothem.