April 23, 2008
In the "From Spider-Man to Smack-Down" chapter of her new book, Taking Back Childhood, Nancy Carlsson-Paige writes about a kindergarten teacher whose students "were consumed with Star Wars play" (the kind of whacking-with-light-sabers stuff that many of us know well). At story time the teacher started reading The Wizard of Oz to the class because she felt like it addressed some of "same themes of power and security" as the Star Wars movies. She also supplied the dramatic play area of her classroom with Wizard of Oz props: red shoes, a witch hat, and so on. (Aside: Dorothy's ruby slippers from the movie version are actually silver in the book, but who needs a fact-checker in the dress-up corner?)
[The teacher] said that the children gradually became immersed in the story of The Wizard of Oz—acting it out with elaborations, drawing it, making their own props—and their more rigid Star Wars play gradually dropped away.
A professor of early childhood education and conflict resolution, the author goes on to say the following, relevant to all of us who think about children's literature a lot:
Many children's books touch on themes of mastery, power, and security but contain no graphic violence, and reading these, especially over and over, can inspire play about mastery and power that comes closer to meeting children's real psychological needs.
I really liked that story of a teacher who knew how to channel her students' interests in a more creative direction. I liked the book, too; I found it informative rather than dire, despite its subtitle, "Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Fast-Paced, Media-Saturated, Violence-Filled World."
Kids' play fascinates me. In my house, a Lego alien now lives in a vegetable-steamer spaceship. ("Mom, if you cook anything in here, will you please take him out?") The alien seems to be involved in a lot of inter-planetary battles. A couple of days ago, though, a younger friend of my son's dropped by, and she and Junior pretended to be butterflies, wafting around the yard for a few minutes.
Updated to add: Nancy Carlsson-Paige is also the mother of actor Matt Damon. Whaddya know. I missed that somehow. Here is a recent profile of Carlsson-Paige from the Boston Globe.
I, too, really love how this was handled. The whole Star Wars thing really is rigid, in many ways: Light v. Dark -- no grays, no other side to be on but Ultimate Good v. Ultimate Evil. I hadn't realized how limiting that could be to a kid -- we played Star Wars but we always *knew* we were on the side of right (we learned that in church!). I may have been the only weird little kid who worried about all the others who weren't at church... Yet, the Wizard of Oz scared the crud out of me. Hm! Thanks for sharing this - definitely a book worth checking out.
Posted by: TadMack | April 23, 2008 at 11:07 AM
r.e. "...worried about all the others who weren't at church," I was always trying to puzzle that one out, too, TadMack.
In Taking Back Childhood, I like it that the kindergarten teacher didn't just declare, No Star Wars, but led them by example in a different direction.
The director of Jr.'s preschool used to talk about how the children would "play" Cinderella, but since so many of them had the the video a thousand times, the script for that, too, was very rigid and did not allow improvisation or adding to the story. The ones who tried to do so would be immediately corrected by the other players.
Posted by: Susan T. | April 23, 2008 at 11:28 AM
I wish most parents, and teachers too, didn't feel they needed permission from books such as this to be able to say "No" and substitute whatever it is that they find better. But if they're not going to do it on their own, hurray for such books.
I read a review of this the other month and was intrigued by the Matt Damon connection. At the time it made me think of a book I first read when my eldest was a baby, which I like very much, "Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It" by Jane M. Healy. Very much along the same lines, and of course preaching to my own personal choir!
Posted by: Becky | April 23, 2008 at 10:55 PM
Most likely members of the choir are the audience for these kinds of books. I see them as providing inspiration more than permission.
From Matt's mom's book, I did learn something about the deregulation of children's television in the mid-1980s. According to Carlsson-Paige, there was a huge uptick in both violent programming and direct marketing to kids soon after.
Posted by: Susan T. | April 24, 2008 at 08:46 AM
I hope books like this *do* manage to make it beyond the choir...
Yes about the uptick. Makes me glad my own heyday was in the mid-seventies! If you're interested about the dereg business, "Down the Tube" is a good account. And not specifically about TV, but a great read (and great title) -- "The Cute and the Cool" by Gary Cross.
Posted by: Becky | April 24, 2008 at 01:30 PM
I like this idea. I am thinking about how to stimulate more dramatic play at my house now... hmmm. Good conversation!
Posted by: cloudscome | April 24, 2008 at 03:04 PM
Becky, I'm going to look for Down the Tube. Thanks.
Cloudscome, the books that sent Jr. off on a very funny dramatic play tangent when he kindergarten-age were by James Marshall: the Cut-Ups series and the Miss Nelson Is Missing books. I can't tell you how many times I pretended to be Miss Viola Swamp. Also, Hansel and Gretel, around that same time. You could make a really cute costume box with simple props. An old towel becomes a cape, and so on.
Posted by: Susan T. | April 24, 2008 at 07:50 PM
I'm a big fan of The Wizard of Oz, of course, but I don't see the clear distinctions between playing out that story and playing Star Wars.
One is a book and one is a movie? Well, that would be a stronger argument if the teacher wasn't using red shoes from the MGM Wizard of Oz movie. As it is, one story started as a book and the other started as a movie, but both now exist in other forms.
Star Wars is "rigid" and Manichean? But a story that includes characters named the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the North doesn't have clear lines of good and evil?
Star Wars is violent. Quite so. And in The Wizard of Oz, the Tin Woodman chops off 41 animals' heads and causes the death of two more. The Scarecrow twists 40 crows' necks. The Lion beheads a monster spider to become king of the forest once again.
I can't help but wonder if The Wizard of Oz seemed so much more appropriate to these teachers than Star Wars because it was around in their own childhoods.
Posted by: J. L. Bell | April 27, 2008 at 01:53 PM
JLB, you may have a point about the teacher's childhood. And it's possible that Carlsson-Paige made a mistake when she mentioned the red shoes (instead of silver); I did wonder about that.
I imagine that the biggest problem in Star Wars play (in a large group setting of children) is the weaponry: the light sabers/hitting with sticks.
Posted by: Susan T. | April 27, 2008 at 04:46 PM
Yes, only one character in The Wizard of Oz gets to carry an ax.
Posted by: J. L. Bell | May 09, 2008 at 09:41 PM