Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Playing School


Weber, Sandra


Nursery schools and kindergartens are sometimes referred to as “playschools.” They are not considered the same as “real” schools but are seen rather as places where children get ready for real school by playing or pretending. The label playschool may also suggest that in these pre-schools the children play, whereas the “real” school is a place where children are supposed to work. A line of popular “educational” toys (miniature chalk boards, magnetic alphabet letters, puzzles, etc.) is sold commercially under the label “Playschool” and further reinforces the notion that three, four, and five-year-olds should be pretending they are in “real” school and that they need real school apparatus to do so. At the same time it is made clear that they are “only playing,” that they are pre-schoolers, that their play is not to be confused with “real” school.


When she was five-years-old, my daughter seemed to have clearly mastered these notions. Every time someone asked her what grade she was in, she answered, “Oh, I’m not in a real grade yet, but next year I’ll be in grade one, I’ll be in real school.” Adults (in North America, at least) are thus passing on some messages to children about what is and what is not “real” school. And the children? They certainly do play school, especially the girls; and they do not necessarily wait to be in any sort of kindergarten. They often play school at home.


From now on I shall use the words “play school” and “playing school” to refer only to the activity (play) of children and not to indicate any notion of nursery, kindergarten, or brandname.


What is it like to play school? What does it mean for the child?


Playing school requires a “teacher,” some “pupils,” a place to play, and some apparatus or “school things.” Alice, a lively red-head, invited a playmate to play school and together they set off in search of additional pupils. Alice soon had three children sitting quietly and attentively at her feet near a bulletin board display. She was obviously the teacher, and her first actions were to get a little footstool to stand on and a long pointer “to teach with.” The other children at first readily accepted Alice as the teacher as if the person who initiates the play is acknowledged as having the right to be the teacher first.


Alice would briskly point to pictures and pleasantly ask each pupil, “What is this?” If the child thus singled out didn’t know, Alice would loudly whisper the answer in an aside so that she/he could confidently give the right answer. The students accepted her “coaching” readily. There was an atmosphere of friendly cooperation.


After a while, Alice initiated a change. This time, when she asked, “What is this?” she whispered a new aside-“Pretend you don’t know, that you’re a baby and this is baby school.” The little dark-haired girl to whom this aside was directed responded with a giggle of cooperation and complicity. She pretended not to know the answer and spoke in a “baby” voice. Delighted, Alice patiently and knowledgeably explained and taught. Pointing to a picture of a windmill, she said, “This is called a windmill. The wind makes its arms go round and round. Can you say ‘windmill?’ ” The children repeated the word slow]y in their “baby” voices, and Alice’s voice and expression became very maternal and tender, “Very good.” Everyone was beaming and exchanging glances of pride and approval. The children showed that they were pleased with themselves. There was shared success and a delight in all this “teaching” and “learning.” A teacher is someone who delights in knowing and in sharing that knowing. There is cooperation and a shared secret between teacher and student. They help each other succeed.


And then, as it had to happen, one of the pupils became impatient for her turn to be teacher. “When am I going to be teacher?” Being the teacher is important. Whereas dolls, teddybears, or even imaginary playmates can be recruited as pupils, only real children can be teacher and everyone wants a turn to be that wonderful person, teacher. “I want to be the teacher.” “No, I am the teacher.” “No, it’s my turn; you were the teacher first last time.”


Once you are teacher, you want to teach for as long as you feel you need to. Alice silenced her challenger with, “I’m not finished yet. When I am finished, then you can have your turn” (said with a conciliatory smile). This notion of finishing did not puzzle the children. You play until you are “finished” and only you know when that is (although others may try to persuade you). Being the teacher is central to playing school, but being willing or able to take turns becomes necessary for the play school to continue.


What is it like to be the teacher? When you are a teacher, like Alice on her footstool, you can be taller, you can be “grown-up,” you can have children literally look up to you. This is reminiscent in some ways of the raised platforms or podiums that are still to be found in some classrooms. When you are a teacher, you can experience having authority. If the pupils don’t want to “listen” to you (obey you), you can answer, “You have to” or, “You must listen to me-I am the teacher,” or, if it really gets down to basics, “Hey, I’m the boss.”


Playing school is a chance to tell other children what to do. The other children will often listen happily to you and settle down busily to do whatever you ask. But authority can be challenged and playing school can be stopped. “I don’t have to listen to you. You’re not really a teacher,” or, “I don’t want to play anymore,” or, “I’m going to be the teacher now.” Many a play school episode ends this way.


Hoping to encourage children to play school, a kindergarten teacher set up a schoolhouse play center equipped with desks, pointers, charts, and other things that children like (need?) for playing school. Much to her dismay, the children who chose to go to that center did not often play school there. Sometimes, there would be three or four children in the schoolhouse, each one doing something (independently of the others) such as coloring or cutting. When a child suggested, “Let’s play school; I’ll be the teacher; you sit over here,” a game of school would ensue, but this kind of invitation did not often occur. The children seemed to be choosing the schoolhouse as a place to play but not necessarily as a place to play school. Playing school belongs naturally to the child’s own spontaneous playworld and cannot be induced solely by suggestive arrangement of furniture or materials (e.g., the schoolhouse play-center).


When the children did want to play school, they would often borrow props such as “real” pointers or chalk from the schoolhouse and take them over to a corner of the classroom where the teacher had made a display. To students given a choice, the “real” place is much more fun to play in than a pretend place. The “real” place makes the playing more realistic, more nearly true, and after all, isn’t that the point of pretending-to make a dream momentarily come true, to try on (to experience) some one else’s reality?


Are children role-playing when they play school? Not in the sense of needing an audience-the children do not seek an audience other than the participants themselves; no one is invited to watch. Playing school is to pretend: “Let’s pretend this teddy is a pupil who hurts himself and we’ll put a band-aid on him.” “We could get a plastic apple for the teacher’s desk.” “Pretend this is baby school.”


At times, however, this pretending becomes so intense it seems real. I’ll never forget the startled look on my daughter’s face when I interrupted her play, a look that seemed to say, “What are you doing here? Mummies don’t belong in school! This is really school.” Just as adults playing a game such as Monopoly may become so absorbed by the game that they feel they really do own Park Place, children may become very involved and absorbed by their play. The child who is playing the teacher at times really is the teacher. The pretending becomes the being. A child “teacher” whose authority was challenged, for example, became very angry, scolded her pupils very soundly, and could not accept that they were playing and that the playing could stop. Children don’t ask, “Who wants to pretend to be teacher?” They ask, “Who wants to be the teacher?” The “playing” often moves very far into the background and it is the “school” that dominates the foreground.


When some kindergarten children played school, their play at times seemed to be an imitation of their own teacher. This was most apparent when they borrowed some of the props their teacher used and repeated some of her well-known directives and poems. At other times, however, their dialogue bore little resemblance to their own teacher’s way of interacting. What dominated most of the playing and talking was a joyful seriousness about teaching and learning-“Shhh, I’m working.” The children wrote things, drew things, cut things out, and pretended to read. Teachers admonished, “Now do this carefully,” explained, directed, scolded, and praised-and questioned. Oh, how the teachers asked their pupils questions, and how confidently the pupils answered those questions, seeking to show that they knew the answers. The children all knew what to do. They know how to play school.


What can these episodes of play say about teaching? As teachers, we sometimes recoil in dismay at the authority or directiveness we think we perceive in their play. “That’s not how I teach.” “They can’t be imitating me-wherever do they get these notions?” Such comments evoke our assumptions that the play of children accurately reflects or imitates their actual school experience. Yet I have seen children who have neither been in a formal classroom nor had older siblings to instruct them play school and energetically “discipline” or direct their pupils, rapping the desk or chalkboard with a ruler for emphasis. The children delight in exploring the possibilities the play school experience offers. In bossing, directing, and showing, the children accept the invitations of the pointer, the chalkboard, the bell.


Although playing school is not an exact replica of adults’ teaching, one cannot help sensing a kinship, a connection, a sense of pedagogy. Adult teachers cannot help wincing or delighting at the children’s playing school because they recognize (although they may also over-interpret) some connection. Alice, wielding her pointer expertly to point the way, to direct the attention of her pupils and to show them the answer, knows something important about teaching. Children’s play is of their world, but it is also of our adult world.


Where does all this playing school come from? In North American society, young children are raised by parents and/or teachers (or daycare teachers). The children know adult-as-parent, adult-as-doctor, perhaps adult-as-fireman, and around the ages of three or four, they may also know adult-as-teacher. They are familiar mainly with adults who come into their homes or daycare places. They are, usually, not yet familiar with adults in the workplace-they are not intimate with adult-as-stockbroker or adult-as-oil-rig-man. When children want (need?) to experience being an adult, when they seek an opportunity to be the one who knows, the one who has the authority such knowing confers, is it not natural for them to turn to that with which they are familiar-to play house or school or hospital-to be an adult who has some relation to children, who in some way has touched their lives? Children play school, not stockbroker.


Is their play a sort of interrogation of the future-a recognition that they will become adults, an eager anticipation of growth (height), aging, of adulthood? Playing school is a chance to “try on” the language and the experience of adults. It reflects an awareness of the being of adults and of their power. It reflects the desire for and the joy of knowing and of using and sharing that knowing. It’s a way of saying, “See what I know. “