An excerpt from
The Boy on the Beach
Building Community through Play
Vivian Gussin Paley
The Boy on the Beach
The child at the shoreline cannot be more than four, but he is already an expert in staging a drama. Such concentration as his admits of few distractions; he barely notices when I stop to watch him. I wish I could bring a similar intensity to the manuscript I have left on my desk. Ironically, the boy and I share the same subject: he plays, and I write about play.
I want to know why children play as they do, and he owns part of the mystery. I have written a dozen books about young children, and I still cannot predict when the moment of supreme awareness will occur, for a child and for me, or how it will be played out.
A day in the kindergarten was for me like a chapter in a novel. Characters come and go, running, crawling, and strutting across the page, suggesting themes, confirming identities, and making claims until common ground is established. If I seemed at times to be manipulating the process, it was all in pursuit of having good conversations. Teacher or novelist, one wants to improve the narrative by fleshing out what is unspoken and overlooked as multiple plots converge. How far can we encourage the story while waiting for the perfect ending to come along?
My pen pal and fellow teacher Yu-ching and I have been writing to each other for several years, trying to pinpoint what is remarkable about the play we watch, but there are always more questions to ask. I so often have the feeling in a classroom that I am interrupting the play just as something important is about to be revealed. On the beach, however, time and tide favor the child's imagination, and there is seldom a reason to hurry the pace of the unfolding drama.
The boy on the beach has worked out a simple story. He uses two props, sand and water, and his stage directions are a series of sound effects with corresponding motions: “Pum, pum, pum” as he molds a sand house; “woo-ah-woo-ah” as he steers the fire engine; and “shwoosh-shwoosh-sh-sh” as he swings the hose in wide arcs. The mound of sand, the steering wheel, and the fireman's hose must perform their roles before the next wave arrives. The boy nods his head to denote each step in the process, and he frowns when his timing is off.
“All gone,” he murmurs, surveying the damage. His pleasure is evident in the deep breath he takes, lifting his face to the sun. Several waves go by, and then he begins the procedure again. He sets aside a fragment of driftwood washed up on the sand.
“Put ‘em here, okay?” the boy says to himself. Or does he speak to an invisible playmate? There seems always to be an inner monologue, explaining, motivating, questioning, and arguing, to enhance the mystery. And yet why not just accept the activity at face value, as the simple pleasure of sand and water play, with a fireman's story to heighten the interest?
I can no more do this than justify my own purposes as merely “playing around.” I want to be on to something, and so, I think, does the boy on the beach. He and I are both here to create metaphor and find hidden meanings in the moment. We are looking for the story that is ours alone to tell.
Watching the boy, I am certain he is involved in high drama. “Boy against nature,” I'll call it: the waves tear down, and the boy rebuilds. Connections are made only to be broken apart and reestablished in new designs, with different characters dominating the scene. My mind races ahead, making up titles for what I see, as if the boy has submitted a manuscript to me for editing and chapter headings.
“Eli!” A woman's voice startles me. It is the boy's mother on a nearby blanket. “Honey, do you want some juice? Cover your eyes!” He shakes his head and pulls down his cap.
“Your son is very busy,” I comment, and the mother laughs. “We forgot the sand toys,” she tells me, “but, as you can see, it makes no difference. I wish his preschool teacher could see him. She told us he's too easily distracted, that he can't stick with anything. But we don't see that.”
Eli glances at his mother, then at me, and I take advantage of the pause to speak to him. I would not have quizzed his mother about the book she is reading; it might appear intrusive. Yet it feels natural to discuss the fireman drama with her son. In the theater of the young, it is acceptable to ask the players to identify their characters and plots.
Their scripts are always in progress; ready to be revised and expanded when a new notion suddenly takes hold and shines its light into shadowy corners. It was in the same spirit that I questioned PhD students who did research in my classroom. Like the children, they were trying to establish their own interesting and provocative voices, eager to talk about what they hoped was a unique approach to an original proposal. Eli, of course, does not wonder whether his work is original. But he knows it is his work and must be given all his attention. The best questions about his work will come from other children; I serve as a pale substitute.
“You put out the fire,” I note.
He nods vigorously. “Yeah, yeah, now it's gone. See, the water it's more stronger than the fire. It's not coming yet, the biggest wave. Ha! I see you!” He speaks directly to the waves, it seems. Their pace has slowed, and he has time to build a bigger house.
“Is that a second floor you're making?”
“Yeah, yeah, and a chimney!” Eli points to the driftwood at the top. “It's really tall, it's taller at that place. Oh-oh. Wah-wah, here it comes!” A new wave tumbles over the house, flattening it but not dislodging the chimney.
“You're dead, you're dead!” Eli jumps up and down, yelling at the waves, grabbing handfuls of wet sand and throwing them at the departing waves. “We gotcha now. You're busted!”
Eli's mother looks up sharply from her book. “Eli, what is going on?”
“I killed the monster,” he tells her. “It hided in the waves. See, it was inside. You couldn't see it but I knew it!”
“Oh, good,” his mother says, returning to her book. Triumphantly, Eli takes the driftwood and makes a large E in the sand, like an artist signing his work. Then, a moment later, he begins to dig a hole, scooping out the sand up to his elbows. He buries the driftwood, the letter E, and the remains of the house, with a sense of finality. I expect him to join his mother on the blanket and drink the juice she offered.
But the hole is a beginning, not an ending. Eli has the look of someone about to make up a new story. There were always children who looked this way when I rang the cleanup bell in my classroom. Luckily for Eli, there is no cleanup bell on the beach, nor does he have to collect his toys and straighten the shelves. Furthermore, like the adult researcher, he may make as many changes as needed to practice what he already knows and to imagine what the next steps might be.
I would like to stay and see what story comes after the fireman drama, but I must move on. Were Eli in my class, I could follow his daily dramas and make good conversation out of them. I might ask, “How did you know a monster was hiding in the waves?” It's a fair question, a sincere question, and only Eli has the answer.
What does it signify that a small boy invents a story never before heard or seen, exactly as he envisions it? He cannot mask his glee as he conquers the monster in the waves, but it is more than that. He seems to announce to himself: I, Eli, represented by the letter E, am someone with ideas; I am someone who turns ideas into actions, and actions into new ideas. Furthermore, I am intended to have my own ideas. That is why I play as I do, to show myself what my ideas are.
A graduate student once confided, “I can't tell if an experiment makes sense or is a dumb idea until I try it out with several groups of children. Even then, I need a few more rearrangements to get it to work.” Eli would add, “And I need some explosions, too.”
It is more than a decade since I've had my own classroom filled with characters looking for stories and stories looking for characters. Fortunately, the theatrical outpourings of the young are readily available wherever children play, and few places rank higher than a beach for observing the unlimited reach of a child's imagination. Eli is the surfer seeking the perfect wave, studying the highs and lows, not knowing in advance what the ultimate experience will be, but certain he will recognize it when it appears.
At the end of the beach, where the path enters an old pine and birch forest, I sit and watch the waves crash against the rocks. If Eli were here, he would don a superhero cape and fly above the waves in a daring feat of valor of his own choosing.
I once had a kindergartener named Eddie W. (there were two other Eddies in that class) who taped the letter W to his shirt and, like Eli, would pursue danger where the rest of us ignored the signals. His sudden rush into an ongoing activity often went unappreciated and misunderstood. If I could return to that time, I would be prepared with a better script. I might ask Eddie, “Who do you pretend to be when you crouch and pounce? Let's find out if this spaceship can use your character.” These imaginary conversations are my own form of fantasy play, popping up especially when I walk alone on a beach or forest path.
Eli needs neither scribe nor negotiator. Children on a beach encounter few obstacles they cannot easily overcome. It is a different matter in a classroom. When my own room reached something like “the flow” described by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, that sense of intense concentration Eli found at the beach, the children would call it a “nothing day.” It was, for everyone, the best sort of day.
“Why a nothing day?” I asked when I first heard the term.
“Because nothing is happening.”
“Do you mean that nothing much interrupts your play, that we have no place to go and no one is coming to see us?”
“Yes. Everything is just ordinary and just us.”
An hour has gone by when I pass Eli again. He and his mother have been joined by an older woman with her granddaughter, perhaps, a girl of Eli's age. The women chat quietly on the blanket, punctuated by an occasional “Marianne, stay by the edge!”
It is clear that the plot has changed. The hole Eli was digging when I left has expanded into a series of holes, and at the bottom of the largest a small Lego doll lies in an inch of water. “Baby pool open!” Eli shouts. He is someone in charge, a lifeguard, or the man who cleans the pool. “More water!” he calls, and Marianne, the water carrier, pours it in. Pail in hand, she trudges back and forth, sloshing out most of the water before emptying the remaining cupful into the hole.
Eli keeps an eye on the waves. Suddenly, as if on cue, a big wave fills the hole. “She's drownding!” he yells gleefully, and Marianne reacts instantly. She pushes him aside, kneels down, and grabs her doll. “My baby!” she cries, touching the doll to her face. No more the silent water carrier, she is now Mother, in full command.
“Put her back!” Eli orders; then, in a more conciliatory manner, he pleads, “Can't she do the drownding for a tiny minute more?”
Marianne is stern. “No,” she says, moving to an old mound of sand left over from Eli's fireman persona. Perhaps Eli should not have looked so pleased when the baby was in danger. Or maybe he was fooled by Marianne's initial cooperation in plans that were mostly of his making.
Marianne croons softly while she smooths the area for the baby's bed. “Go to sleep, Buttercup, go to sleep soon. When Daddy comes, mmm, go to sleep baby child, when Daddy comes, mmm.”
Eli studies the scene, watching Marianne build up the walls of the crib. To play or not to play is not his question. Of course he must play. Quickly he scoops up a scattering of little shells and fills the bottom of the pail. Holding an imaginary cell phone to his face he says, “I'm bringing home chicken nuggets, Mother. Look out the window. I'm in the SUV.”
Eli and Marianne are a pair of dramatists, though often inclined toward different outcomes for individual scenes. But they both wish for stories that blend the familiar with the uncommon. As in a really good research study, play does not value closure. It seeks new direction and unexpected results. We want to be surprised but also reassured that we know the territory. The next wave may open a new vista, and we want to be prepared.
I feel more focused when I return to my desk. There are few events better than the play of four- and five-year-olds to release memories and stir up old connections for me. But I can never again be like the players on the beach. They take on new identities as easily as the roll of the waves. I cannot be the fireman who races to put out fires or the mother who saves her baby from drowning. Conventional thinking limits my own transformations, but once again I have glimpsed the nature and practice of being a child. As always, I sit in respectful wonder at the ultimate meaning and purpose of these dreamlike sequences.
If I am not a fireman or mommy to Buttercup, then perhaps I will be Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse. She is the designated outsider, witness to the mysterious rituals of the family she studies, loving them yet unable to join them and be privy to their secret codes. Lily asks herself, “What is the meaning of life?” and finally, with relief, she decides
The great revelation had never come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck in the dark … in the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing was stuck into stability. “Life stand still here.”
Is that the plan then? Life stand still here? If so, the children and I both want to watch these events carefully. The children must examine each scene in order to play in it, as must I, at a distance, in order to write down their words, to make what I can of them. It is an intimate connection we establish, the players and the observers. Together we watch the ways chaos finds a sensible shape. We marvel at the potential of the imagination to find its own questions and seek solutions, knowing that they are temporary and we can return in a new role the next day if we wish.
“To be continued” is our certainty and our comfort. We are not required to keep telling the same story or become stuck in any given role, but it is useful to experience its possibilities for a while.
My own story of Eli and Marianne unexpectedly continues when I discover them in a kindergarten I visit in the fall. I am delighted to realize that their dramatic renderings on the beach have been transferred to a new stage, and in a classroom that still preserves time for play. The first thing I do is write to Yu-ching in Taiwan, for she and I have already begun a conversation about the boy and girl on the beach, and there is nothing we like better than to follow a good classroom story.