Serious about child’s play

Early-childhood researcher and teacher Jane Perry has long promoted schools where children can truly be seen and heard. Even during her final week as a campus employee, Perry wanted to be interviewed on the playground of the Harold E. Jones Child Study Center, where kids run, play, and make art.

Jane Perry

Early-childhood researcher and teacher Jane Perry (Wendy Edelstein photo)

Perry retired from UC last month after working for nearly three decades with young children on campus, mostly at the Jones childcare and research center on Atherton Street, the weekday refuge of some 50 4- and 5-year-old children of Berkeley faculty, staff, and students.

Perry began working at the center as a graduate-student researcher in the early 1980s while earning her Ph.D. in early-childhood education at Berkeley. She took a pay cut to work there as a teacher, an unusual move, since people with such credentials rarely seek employment in the classroom. Says Perry: “I wanted my research to come from the point of view of the children.”

Some of Perry’s findings were published in Outdoor Play: Teaching Strategies With Young Children (2001, Teachers College Press). In the outdoors, children can “explore without restrictions,” says Perry. “The outdoors gives children the space to express their growing bodies, mind, intellect, and imagination. All aspects of development can occur outdoors when the outdoors is safe.”

To illustrate her point, she points to a sandbox stocked with plastic dishes and utensils where children have assigned themselves the roles of daddy, mommy, and their kids, and are “making sense of family” in their play.

While experiencing the physicality of sand and water, the children also gain skill in numbers and mathematics as they set out dishes for their make-believe meal, says Perry. And when multiple children play, they also learn about social negotiating and problem-solving.

Beside us, two girls sit at a table gluing tall wooden dowels to cardboard, and then paint the pieces. Their playmaking looks like a big gluey mess, but later Perry explains what she has observed.

One girl, says Perry, “needed to explore the paint and glue’s physical properties” by smearing them together with her hands. “A tactile learner,” she “temperamentally wanted to direct her own learning process.”

Speaking to her compatriot in hushed tones, the girl used “subtle negotiating language” to enlist her playmate to scavenge surreptitiously for more materials before Perry intervened and helped her focus her artistic expression.

Perry points to the girls’ experiment in color-making and “the exuberance of the fast-paced sequence of new ideas as they examined the unique features of the dense glue when mixed with the paint.”

Without a teacher hovering over them, she observes, the children are “playing at their highest level of competence.”

“Jane has taught me as a parent that whatever direction your child takes herself is the right direction,” says Hollis Ashby, Cal Performances’ associate director, whose 4-year-old daughter, Barrie, has been attending the center since last August.

“Kids have a need to explore whatever has piqued their interest at that time,” adds Ashby. From watching Perry, “I have learned not to try to impose my view on what my child is doing. That’s really liberating.”

Child’s play

With 10 children and three teachers seated in a circle, Perry reads a “story play” that one of the girls had dictated to her. It features a girl, her bunny and puppy, the girl’s parents (a princess and a king), three “army guys,” and a castle.

The children then act out the play — both the animate and inanimate characters — which “helps them follow a story line and appreciate a story’s progression,” explains Perry, who has seen this exercise help kids increase their understanding of narrative over the course of an academic year.

Perry has used the story-play method for 22 years. By generating their own stories, she says, the children “not only hear language from the text of others but also out of their own imaginations and daily life.” Story plays, she adds, allow the children and the teacher to make sense of typical themes that occur in the play of young children: power, control, danger, safety, life, death, family, and home.

At the Jones Child Study Center, Perry has encouraged other teachers to see themselves as researchers. A teacher-researcher, she says, is “basically any teacher ready to make sense of the research data collected from observational records, samples of the children’s artwork and stories, and discussions with the children themselves to ask: What are each child’s strengths? What is important to the child? How is the child using the learning areas both inside and outside?”

Those questions, she says, must come before asking how the teachers can support a child. That level of advocacy and attention, says Perry, is “a fiscal and thus a political issue,” since collecting data requires employing an adequate number of teachers and paying them a living wage.

For Perry, “Education is always an investment in the future. When priorities emphasize children’s initiative and curiosity, then children will have the creativity, flexibility, and critical-thinking skills to engage in sustaining a healthy world.”

She has seen the impact of the program firsthand — both of her sons attended the center. “My professional and family lives were unusually woven together and both were enriched,” says Perry, whose fall pregnancies became part of the curriculum as the children observed her physical changes and greeted the newborns.

‘Attitude of delight’

For years Perry has divided her time between two jobs, spending approximately 65 percent of her time teaching at the Jones Child Study Center, and devoting the remainder of her work hours to coordinating and disseminating the research that’s done there.

Perry has been “a key player” as the liaison between the Jones Child Study Center and campus researchers, says Philip Cowan, emeritus professor of psychology and former director of the center’s parent entity, the Institute of Human Development. Largely from the psychology and education departments, the researchers are a mix of faculty as well as graduate and undergraduate students.

A “fantastic teacher and very sophisticated researcher,” Perry knew how to create a climate for good research, Cowan says.

That, says Perry, means providing feedback and guidance to researchers to ensure the procedures, materials, and scripts they use are engaging and understandable from the children’s point of view, while also making sense to the subjects’ parents. Paving the way for researchers to enter the busy classroom involves fostering “a spirit of partnership” among researchers, teachers, and families.

At the center, researchers have studied causal learning in young children, the effects of imitation on children’s pronunciation, and memory and language acquisition, among other topics.

Just 55, Perry says her departure from UC will be “a new beginning, not so much a retirement.” She wants the flexibility to be able to take on consulting opportunities as well as more creative projects. “We’ll see where that takes me in terms of my commitment to children,” she says.

Perry says she will most miss “the freshness of kids’ voices.” She notes that after the girls washed the paint and glue from their hands, one said, “‘Now we’re all clean and new.’ That’s an attitude of delight I’m going to have to find elsewhere.”