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In every classroom, in every school, in every community there are always insiders and outsiders. When you were in school which were you?

In 1992 Vivian Gussin Paley set out to change the social order in her kindergarten classroom. She noticed, as most teachers do, that even when you outlaw hitting and ban name calling, certain children, “the bosses” as her young students dubbed them, control the social order by excluding some children thereby creating the in-crowd and the outcasts. “No, you can’t join our game,” No, you can’t play dolls with us,” “No, you can’t be my friend,” the bosses say.

To address the hurtful behavior she saw in her classroom Paley instituted a new rule: “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.” Her children were told that under this new rule they could not stop any other child from joining in their play or activities. Over the year Paley promulgated the rule through class discussions and through storytelling. Was it easy? No. There were still hurtful exclusions and plenty of tears from the bosses who could no longer get their way. As Paley notes when she visited other classrooms to see what older students thought of the rule, these third graders, already wise to the way the world works, said: “It’s very fair, but it just isn’t human nature.”

But as a peace educator I don’t believe that we should give up trying to eliminate exclusionary behavior because it seems to go against the grain or because it’s hard. Anti-bullying research shows that children who are always rejected may become shy, lonely, sad, anxious, insecure, fearful, and may even avoid school if they can (Tull, 2011). Children who are allowed to exclude others grow up thinking they can continue to do so, and look where that leads: Young boys like Treyvon Martin are murdered because they are the wrong color in the wrong place, and he is just one of many.

So stand up with me against exclusionary behavior. If you’re a teacher of young children institute the “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play” rule in your classroom. If you work with elementary,middle, or high school students check out this TPN activity based on Dr. Seuss’ Sneetches.

Read more… You Can’t Say You Can’t Play by Vivian Gussin Paley 1992 Harvard University Press

Listen to her speak:

Teach Peace Now
Teach Peace Now
We offer books, activities, lesson plans, and ideas that teachers, parents, and students can use to promote values, attitudes and behaviors which encourage non-violent resolution of conflict, respect for human rights, democracy, intercultural understanding and tolerance.


  1. I don’t know about this Joan – it is also really important for children to develop their autonomy and say ‘no’; there will be times in their life when it is absolutely necessary to exclude someone for their health and well being. It is very important that a child be able to say ‘no you can’t play with me’ when the person could potentially hurt them. I am concerned that if this rule was not implemented with considerable skill and insight on the part of the children, with some of kind understanding that the intention is to make sure everyone in the classroom is included, then there is a danger that children will apply it universally and become more prone to being manipulated, hurt, or sexually abused as kids or in later life.

    • Your comment has really made me think about how we use terms. When I use the word exclude I am using the second dictionary definition: to shut out from consideration or privilege. As a classroom teacher I see this happen all the time. Certain children are never included in other children’s games and play. Most often the reason is based on some superficial aspect of that child – the wrong clothes, the wrong color skin, a disability,or perhaps, the child is just plain shy. We are talking about fellow classmates here, not strangers. In a well-run classroom or school children should not fear someone is going to physically hurt them ever. A teacher who can’t control his/her students’ behavior certainly won’t be able to enforce Paley’s rule. The purpose of the rule is to breakdown stereotypes some chuldren have about others. I suggest you read her book and see how gentle and peaceful her classroom is run. Also read the article Social Exclusion in the Classroom by Elaine Wilson which analyzes the effect the rule had in several classrooms.Unfortunately, I can’t get a link to it to work but if you type the title in google search you will be able to download a PDF. Joan

      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I have a link for you too, it may be the most inspiring film you will ever watch (if you haven’t already!), it’s a documentary about a fourth grade class in Japan. It addresses exactly what we’re talking about:

  2. Thank you for sharing this video. It is what good teaching is all about. In my forty years of teaching I have seen this level of empathy happen in many classrooms, including my own. Teaching emotional skills will be the the topic of my next post. Check out the bullyproject link to see what happens when exclusion and emotional growth are not a focus of teachers and schools. Joan

  3. Scott Tucker says:

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  4. kathy chittaphong says:

    I enjoyed both of the videos. Vivina dose great work when working with children. I’ve seen her in a previous video in one of my other classes and feel like she’s an insperation to others. I felt like the mans video also very inspiring in helping childen to talk about their feelings that they may otherwise not have shared with others.

  5. tealice666 says:

    This video and information is very moving, inspiring, and enlightening because it is the truth. It is now my new priority to follow these powerful words. –Natalie

  6. […] TRYING TO JOIN THE MAINSTREAM CULTURE GAME: In the mainstream game, the rule is: You can’t say you can’t play. Everybody is allowed to join in, like the largest game of Red Rover EVER. You just hold hands with […]

  7. Elizabeth says:

    To me, the “bosses” telling a child no you cannot play” is just a way for them to manipulate their class mates into thinking they’re the boss. When you impliment a rule that everyone who is WITHIN the trust circle can play, then you’re saying that everyone you trust can play. We still need to teach kids that ANYONE who touches them inappropriately, in places you shouldn’t be touched, or tries to lure them away from their familiar and trustful persons that they need to get out of the situation and inform their trusted adult. All this is teaching is that we love everyone in our school communities and we treat everyone the same.

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