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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

Everyone Here Can Play

How can teachers and students respond to exclusion, teasing, and isolation in the classroom? This program begins with the rule "You can't say you can't play."

As schools become more diverse, many teachers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of creating a sense of community in their classrooms. Unfortunately, mere physical inclusion does not guarantee social inclusion, and many students with disabilities as well as students from other —alized groups continue to be "islands." Teasing, isolation, and exclusion are not limited to students with labels; most students find themselves left out or unchosen at some point in their schooling.
Within the field of special education, many attempts to generate greater inclusion and social acceptance have focused directly on the child with disabilities, often called (maddeningly) the "inclusion child." Strategies such as Circle of Friends, Making Action Plans, and special friends' programs have concentrated on building social networks around the child with disabilities and enlisting the support of other students in "befriending" him or her (Forest & Lusthaus, 1989; Vandercook, York, & Forest, 1989; Voeltz & Brennan, 1984). One problem with such programs has been a lack of reciprocity in relationships; the child with disabilities is consistently being helped or supported, with little attention given to the general social context of the classroom (Van der Klift & Kunc, 1994).
Our project explored the social climate of the classroom relative to issues of exclusion, friendship, and connection by addressing the overall classroom community rather than by focusing on a particular child. This research project originated from a book, You Can't Say You Can't Play (Paley, 1992). Paley, a kindergarten teacher, was concerned with the way children in her class and other classes were excluded through such statements as "You can't play with us" and "You're not my best friend anymore." She struggled with her role as teacher in affecting the social climate of the classroom and the behaviors of the students.
Paley talked to her class about exclusion and friendship, asking them what they thought about the rule "You can't say you can't play." "Would it be fair?" she asked. "Would it work?" We decided to take those questions to our own classrooms.

“You Can't Say You Can't Play”

Our project represents the collaboration of five people: myself, a university teacher and researcher; and four classroom teachers and researchers. All four teachers taught at Ed Smith Elementary School in Syracuse, New York, a K–6 school of approximately 800 students served in 35 classrooms. The students represent a range of socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, and the school is known for its efforts—and success—at fully including students with significant disabilities. Although not all the classrooms in the school are inclusive, the four classrooms in this study have that designation; "typical" children and children with labels and individualized education programs are classmates and full members of their classroom communities.
After reading Paley's book, I initiated the project as part of a research consortium (Sapon-Shevin, Dobbelaere, Corrigan, Goodman, & Mastin, 1998). The four volunteer teachers, Anne Dobbelaere (kindergarten), Mary C. Mastin (1st grade), Kathy Goodman (2nd grade), and Cathleen Corrigan (4th grade), hardly represented a random sample of teachers. All had been involved in the development of the inclusion program at their school and were consistently regarded as leaders in the field of full inclusion, both within the school and in the wider community. They shared a desire to further explore the social climate of their classrooms and to find natural ways of changing the patterns of exclusion.
  • Can teachers alter the social patterns of students' interactions by making a rule designed to prevent exclusion and support inclusion?
  • How would the implementation of such a rule affect students in general? Students with disabilities in particular?
  • What do students say and understand about teacher rules and the impact of rules on their interactions and friendships?
  • What is the actual impact of such a rule on students' interactions? On teachers' understanding of their classrooms and the inclusion process?

Flexible Format

This exploration was guided by the ongoing thinking of all five participants, and thus the structure was flexible, shifting according to our perceptions and needs. We met regularly, beginning with reading You Can't Say You Can't Play together. Early discussions focused on our individual histories around issues of friendship and exclusion and included an extensive exploration of the appropriateness, effectiveness, and ethics of teachers who explicitly attempt to influence social interactions in their classrooms.
During the first year of the project, two observers collected field notes on students' social relationships and the effects of the rule's implementation. After the observers collected this information, we met to analyze the notes, with particular reference to ways in which children with disabilities were included in classroom interactions.
Within the first year and a half of the project, each teacher introduced the "You can't say you can't play" rule in her classroom. Our meetings centered on discussions about the rule and the teachers' experiences in their classrooms.

Learning by Grade Level

The results of the rule's implementation varied not only across classes but also across grade levels. The developmental and conceptual understandings of kindergartners and 4th graders varied, as did the ways teachers implemented the rule, debriefed it with students, and engaged the students in problem solving. As the rule began to permeate the entire school (one of the most exciting results of the project), some of the upper-level teachers actually taught and implemented the rule with the help of students who had already been in "You can't say" classrooms at an earlier grade. What follows is a sample of the results from each grade level.
Kindergarten: Teacher Anne Dobbelaere found that although all students readily accepted the "You can't say" rule, it couldn't stand alone. Students needed modeling so they would know how to ask to join a group. She reported, "Just saying the rule was not enough. We acted out ways to approach other children, such as tapping them on the shoulder or saying, 'Excuse me, could I join you?'" Within Anne's class, the rule became one more issue to role play and problem solve.
First Grade: Mary Mastin, the 1st grade teacher, shared the following concerning the "You can't say" rule:Kids really accept it and don't question it. They come back to me and say, "So-and-so won't let me play." It's saved a lot of time in problem solving—they repeat the rule and then they solve the problem faster. It's a given that kids are going to be excluded, so now they can move on and figure out what to do about it.Students still need the teacher to make the deal. Kids will work things out, but the teacher's presence is necessary to make the rule work. When they see me, they say, "Oh, she's gonna make us do that," and they do it. They don't pout about it. They just accept it and get past it more quickly.
Mary and her coteacher, Lois Eddy, had their room organized into learning centers. Half the class received small-group and direct instruction while the other half used the learning centers (blocks, computer, reading, science), and then the groups switched. The number of students who were per-mitted in each learning center had always been limited. But when Mary implemented the new rule, she realized and explained to the students that they would have to remove the number limitations from the learning centers, since limits would indirectly tell students they "couldn't play."
Mary reported:It worked out really well. Some kids previously wouldn't go into an area unless their friends could go with them. When we took the limit off, the groups of kids that interacted were more varied. They could be with their friends, but also with other kids, so they had more interactions.Interviews with the 1st graders yielded concurring perceptions. Did the rule change anything? One girl said:It changed things for the good because some people didn't play with other kids. Sometimes, they didn't play with kids who wanted to play with them. . . . Now, the kids are finding out that they can have real fun with the other kids that they weren't playing with before.
The 1st graders (with one exception) were able to articulate what the rule meant and to give examples. They perceived classroom changes in three areas: (1) the number of people who now played together; (2) the variety of people who now played together; and (3) the ways they talked to one another and played together.
Second Grade: The 2nd grade teacher, Kathy Goodman, had difficulty the first time she implemented the rule:The first few months—implementing the rule; dealing with tattling around infractions; helping impulsive, explosive children learn strategies to successfully manage their emotions—were very demanding. My classroom staff and I were discouraged by the continuing negativity and social problems in the classroom. We spent countless hours after school discussing strategies and creating various groupings. In late December, we felt we had exhausted our resources and were willing to conclude we weren't getting anywhere.Kathy's persistence paid off:Surprisingly, the effects of implementing the rule had at least as much influence on me as on the children. It challenged us all to work hard creating and maintaining a more idealistic world. Ultimately, most children responded on some level to the absolute fairness of the rule. At the end of the year, I had to admit I'd never seen a group of kids change so dramatically. I had grown, too.
Fourth Grade: Like the students in Paley's book, the 4th graders were more reluctant to embrace the rule wholeheartedly. Their teacher, Cathleen Corrigan, had them write regularly in their journals about how the rule was working. Cathleen reported:As the weeks progressed, the children responded to the same questions Vivian Paley asked: "Is the rule fair?" and "Is it working?" Overwhelmingly, the children wrote that the rule was fair, even if they personally didn't like it. For the most part, they also said it was working.
Because only Cathleen's 4th grade class had adopted the rule, students received a powerful lesson in the difference between piecemeal reform and broader, systemic restructuring:Our greatest challenge came on the playground, with other 4th graders from different classes. If a student was denied admittance into a soccer game, someone from our class would say, "You can't say you can't play." Kids from other classes said they didn't have to follow that rule and "got mad because it was our rule." We discussed how we could solve the problem. The possibilities ranged from "starting our own soccer game" to "telling the other teachers about the rule and maybe their classes could start doing it." We also discussed the dilemma they would face when they went to 5th grade and were separated into five different classes. They said maybe they could tell their new teachers about the rule.
The 4th graders reflected on social relationships in their classroom and the role of the rule in altering the social climate. One boy explained:I have noticed that when someone asks if he can play, nobody ever says, "No, you can't play." They say, "Sure!" or "Yeah, you can play," or if it's a board game for only four people and he's the fifth person, he can maybe play next time or something like that.
For the 4th graders, the rule raised many issues. Was it right to "force" people to play with other people? Were there times when the structure legitimately limited the number of students who could participate in an activity without being labeled exclusionary? And, perhaps most significant, what were the effects of implementing a rule about inclusion if only a small number of students in the school had to abide by it, and how could the rule be implemented to affect a larger social context?

Ruling to Include

Overall, the "You can't say" rule has been helpful in creating a rich discourse about inclusion issues. Implementating the rule was a powerful organizing principle for these classrooms, mirroring rather than initiating a preexisting commitment to inclusion and positive social interactions. Within these classrooms that already focused on social relationships and the importance of treating one another well, the rule provided a vehicle for exploring the complexities of choice, friendship, and autonomy.
The rule had power to change behaviors when introduced by teachers who already took seriously their role in structuring social interactions and who had extensive repertoires of teaching and promoting social interactions among children. But the rule was not a cure-all. Simply posting the rule on the wall of a classroom did not significantly alter student behavior, though the rule did give teachers a grounding for their discussion. Teachers and students focused on figuring out how, not whether, to include students. Through the use of journals, role playing, problem solving, and class meetings, the four teachers found ways to make the rule part of their classroom activities.
For students with disabilities, the rule initiated useful discussions, but in and of itself it was not sufficient to alter interactions with typical peers. Because the rule was phrased in the negative, it permitted a kind of passive exclusion; that is, if the person does not ask to play, he or she does not have to be included. But for the rule to work, students have to initiate it. They have to know how to ask whether they can play and do it in a way that will be acceptable to others. Many students with disabilities weren't able to take that first step and therefore didn't even get into the loop of playing and being accepted or rejected. Students with disabilities need direct instruction in how to initiate play, whereas typical students need to have repertoires for noticing that a child is on the periphery and asking, "Do you want to play with us?"
This project provides encouraging evidence that teachers who take seriously the social climate in their classrooms and school can challenge existing patterns of exclusion and isolation and help children develop new repertoires of friendship and inclusion. We need not simply lament that some children have no friends and are excluded; caring teachers can make a difference.

Forest, M., & Lusthaus, E. (1989). Promoting educational equity for all students: Circles and aps. In S. Stainback, W. Stainback, & M. Forest (Eds.), Educating all students in the mainstream of regular education (pp. 43-57). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Paley, V. (1992). You can't say you can't play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sapon-Shevin, M., Dobbelaere, A., Corrigan, C., Goodman, K., & Mastin, M. (1998). Promoting inclusive behavior in inclusive classrooms: "You can't say you can't play." In L. H. Meyer, H. S. Park, M. Grenot-Scheyer, I. S. Schwartz, & B. Harry (Eds.), Making friends: The influences of culture and development (pp. 105-132). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Van der Klift, E., & Kunc, N. (1994). Beyond benevolence: Friendships and the politics of help. In J. S. Thousand, R. A. Villa, & A. I. Nevin (Eds.), Creativity and collaborative learning: A practical guide to empowering students and teachers (pp. 391-401). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Vandercook, T., York, J., & Forest, M. (1989). The McGill Action Planning Systems (MAPS): A strategy for building the vision. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 69, 736-747.

Voeltz, L. M., & Brennan, J. M. (1984). Analysis of interactions between nonhandicapped and severely handicapped peers using multiple measures. In J. M. Berg (Ed.), Perspectives and progress in mental retardation: Vol. 1. Social, psychological and educational aspects (pp. 61-72). Baltimore: University Park Press.

Mara Sapon-Shevin has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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