Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 2000 Issue »

    Book Review - Getting to Know City Kids: Understanding Their Thinking, Imagining, and Socializing by Sally Middlebrooks

    Brenda S. Engel
    Getting to Know City Kids: Understanding Their Thinking, Imagining, and Socializing
    by Sally Middlebrooks.
    New York: Teachers College Press, 1998. 176 pp. $19.95.

    At the dawn of the twenty-first century, one reads and hears lamentations about the poverty of children's imaginations, the dominance of television in their lives, and nostalgia over the loss of childhood itself. In the meantime, children, given the least opportunity, continue to play. Their play, like all play, is essentially "just for fun," without ulterior purpose. It takes place wherever and whenever there are opportunities - intervals of unassigned time and space. As Iona and Peter Opie wrote in the introduction to their classic work on children's street games, "Where children are is where they play" (1969, p. 10). In addition to creating variations in structured games with established rules (e.g., tag, prisoner's base, step ball), children improvise pretend play. They reenact roles and recreate scenes that are uncannily similar to those of bygone eras when their great, great grandparents were their age. As an elementary school art teacher, parent, and grandparent, I've always been impressed by the ways children's imaginations demand expression - particularly through art and play. Here are some excerpts from a staff developer's journal (Lerman, 1998a, 1998b) of playground activities at the Mission Hill School in Roxbury, Massachusetts:

    November 23, 1998: Smiling children come running up to me with a dandelion. "Look. That's the only flower left." "We found it sticking through the fence." "We're going to use it for a magic potion." (p. 12)

    December 14, 1998: Several days of work have failed thus far to dislodge a large stone. What is the digging for? "To reach China," "To get worms for [the classroom] turtles," and to find artifacts and bones . . . "Look, the worm made an S," said Laurent. "I think we found a dinosaur," said Karuna. Some of the round rocks have become eggs which are carefully hidden in the grass. "Keep this baby egg in here. We need to put it in a safe place" . . . "The egg is comfortable with grass. I'm the doctor and came with medicine." (p. 15)

    February 1, 1999: After two weeks of playing on the hardtop we got the use of the grass area back again. Groups of children of all ages ran for the hole, the tree, the little house and the lilac trees. "Good" and "bad" guys chased each other everywhere, shouting, "The robot is trying to kill us!" (p. 21)

    These notes describe urban children transforming the rocks, dirt, trees, and flowers in the area outside their city school into the stuff of myth and drama. The themes are familiar - magic and medicine, dinosaurs and dinner, good guys and bad guys.

    In her book Getting to Know City Kids, Sally Middlebrooks describes and illustrates similar transformations of everyday things and places in the out-of-school, pretend play of six African American and Puerto Rican children in New York City's East Harlem. The distinctive value of Middlebrooks's work lies in its presentation of the children's own intentions and in the accounts of how they manage to carry out those intentions within the constraints of their city lives and resources. Although both the settings for their play and available materials are limited by the circumstances of the children's city environment - small, crowded apartments, paved outdoor spaces - the children expand their lives and experiences through active imagining.

    Middlebrooks's intuitive sense that there was more going on in urban children's lives than was visible to the adult world led to her study of children's creative play. Her own beliefs were supported and reinforced by the work of a handful of like-minded fellow researchers. Middlebrooks intended to go beyond the usual research on city children, which she believed was superficial and mainly influenced by what she sees as a deficit view of their lives. She had a longstanding interest in children's near-universal impulse to create worlds that reflect "life both as they know it and as they would like it to be" (p. 3) - a statement that could well provide a rationale or near-explanation for pretend play in general. In the brief autobiographical reminiscence that constitutes the preface to the book, Middlebrooks describes herself as a child growing up in Florida. The driveway and yard outside the family house became a stage on which she and her friends tried on roles and played out their own versions of journeys, dramas, and adventure. A photograph on the opening page shows the author, six-year-old Sally, sitting with four friends in a wheelbarrow, her father standing just behind them: "As I look again at the photograph, I see that what was compelling for me as a child continues to be meaningful and persistent for me as a teacher and researcher: a curiosity about the natural world, a passion for making things and for transforming spaces, and a sense of delight in being among children" (p. x). These early impulses are evident in the adult researcher as she goes about finding out how, when, and where six children growing up in East Harlem play. Her interest, curiosity, appreciation of their imaginations, and her pleasure in their company enable her to establish a trusting relationship with the children: she understands on a deep personal level their urge toward "worldmaking."

    Teaching classes for the Central Park Conservancy in the Belvedere Castle in New York City's Central Park provided Middlebrooks with the opportunity to carry out the research that led to her book. Among the teachers in the city's public schools whom Middlebrooks had met through these classes, she found one willing to work with her. The teacher she calls Monifa understood and agreed with the purpose of Middlebrooks's proposed study: "To refute the current theory that inner-city children don't use their imaginations in play; that they're pretty much involved in video games and that's about it" (p. 21). And, indeed, the evidence presented in the book successfully contradicts such assumptions. Monifa helped Middlebrooks move from "outsider to insider" by introducing her to the six children whose words and images are the evidence for Middlebrooks's findings in Getting to Know City Kids.

    Middlebrooks chose these six children after initial interviews with a larger group of third through fifth graders from one neighborhood school where Monifa worked. The school also met Middlebrooks's criteria of being a "typical" East Harlem School (a majority of the students were eligible for free meals) and representative of minority populations. Middlebrooks's final selection of informants was based on their having had actual experience in transforming spaces and their willingness to talk about it. These children, eight to ten years old, lived in apartments in an area "plagued by poverty, crime, drugs, and high infant mortality" (p. 4).

    Middlebrooks's research findings depend on three kinds of qualitative data collected during the spring and fall of two successive school years: several interviews with each of the six children, drawings (made by the children at her request), and photographs (taken by the children with disposable cameras Middlebrooks gave them). The interviews, conducted singly or in pairs, were audio taped, with the children's permission. The drawings were done and the photographs planned during the interview sessions.

    Just as, for children, establishing the guidelines and deciding on the rules is often the most important and time-consuming part of inventing a new game, integral to the game itself, arranging and furnishing the setting in pretend play is a significant part of the play's meaning. Middlebrooks was therefore particularly concerned with understanding the children's reasons for making choices about materials and arrangements. Since oral explanations and descriptions can be confusing and open to misunderstanding by adults, the children's visual work, both drawings and photographs, added an important clarifying dimension to Middlebrooks's research. With their permission, the author sat with the children as they drew the pictures of their play spaces, observing and noting their erasures and revisions and sometimes asking questions to clear up confusions. This process enabled Middlebrooks to deepen her understanding of her subjects' oral accounts and on occasion to fill in details a child might have forgotten to relate. The photographs give the children's descriptions a degree of recognizable reality. Together, the children's words and their visual work give a fairly full and useful description of the settings and actions of the pretend play. Once gathered, the data - photographs, drawings, and recorded conversations - were coded for salient themes.

    The main section of the book consists of descriptions in words and images of the children's structures and play, along with comments by Middlebrooks. This is preceded by a section of explanatory material and review of the literature, and followed by a relatively brief concluding section, "Lessons for Adults."

    Getting to Know City Kids was written first as a doctoral dissertation and at times seems not sufficiently converted from its original purpose. The content is divided into short sections with bold headings that interrupt the flow of thought. The main points are stated and restated in ways that may be appropriate for a thesis but are slightly irritating for ordinary readers, and the content is summed up at the beginning of the explanatory chapters in ways that are both unnecessary and overly didactic. However, Middlebrooks's literary style is original, expressive, and at times almost poetic. Her respect and admiration for the subjects of her research are evident in the way she writes about them:

    Inside their teepees and clubhouses, their tents and playhouses, the children seclude themselves from the rest of the world; there they find room to experiment and permission to re-write who they can be in a world often closed to them. (p. 47)

    Pretend play is necessarily a fragile enterprise, vulnerable to adult put-downs and disbelief. For this reason, perhaps, it is usually covert, carefully hidden from adult eyes. In order to gain access to their pretend play, therefore, Middlebrooks had to establish credentials as a respectful adult, interested in "what city kids do" (p. 31), one who could be trusted to keep their secrets (which she eventually betrayed to some extent in writing the book, though names are changed and permission was given). Perhaps most important in gaining access to the children's make-believe worlds was Middlebrooks's consenting to their importance, believing in them almost to the point of becoming complicit. Her going along can be seen in the serious, careful, and trusting way the children describe their play to her:

    Michael: Sometimes we like play like if somebody is going to rob the place. Like if some old lady [store owner] lives there. And he [the robber] comes like, "Give me all your money."

    Sally: And then what happens?

    Michael: I make like a cop. And then I just catch him. And I make like a little house like the jail. So that's what we mostly do. (p. 107)

    So that's how we make the teepee - 'cause we put the two chairs together and the sheet over it and lift up the sheet on top of the chairs so we could see. And we watch TV, eat potato chips and have fun - like if we really camping [sic]. (p. 49)

    Much of their pretend play, although by no means all, took place inside the children's apartments because of the perceived danger of the city streets:

    Then I wondered how it felt when he was inside, alone. Isaac replies: "Well, I'm actually not; I have my teddy bears. I'll play with them. I make believe they are my friends; or one day they meet each other and they become friends. Or maybe they are friends and they act like a little chit-chat. That's mostly all I'll do." (p. 77)

    The book describes the settings the children invent and construct. Indoors, they make spaces within spaces, most of them in bedrooms shared with siblings: a tent made of chairs covered with a sheet, a "little house" in a bunk bed, a "bakery" constructed with four pillows and a blanket. Outdoors, a relatively obdurate environment, the children adapt existing structures to their own purposes: a playground apparatus becomes a community complete with house, school, preschool, supermarket, and a "place for parties." They also actually build a clubhouse of scrap materials in a tree in an adjacent playground, make a traditional fort of snowballs and a modified igloo, "kind of like an Eskimo thing" (p. 127).

    The spaces and structures are furnished with a variety of relevant props, some of them the actual objects (for instance, flashlight, dice, radio, pads, pencils, and occasionally real food); some, in Ayisha's words, the products of "imaginating" (p. 142) (a paper bag cut out and painted to look like fire); and others somewhere between the real and the imagined - that is, resembling the real object but out of scale or subtly transformed (plastic volcano, stuffed animals, Monopoly money). Whatever is there or can easily be obtained or transformed is assimilated into the structure and adapted to the needs of the pretend play.

    The constraints of space, materials, and resources lead to invention, as evidenced by the following exchange between Middlebrooks and Isaac:

    There is a volcano but no lava. I ask if he doesn't sometimes cut up paper and pretend it is spewing out of the cone and onto the floor. He doesn't. For me, this would add to the realism, be fun to do, and be a means to change things - if only in a limited way. But can Isaac do such things? I think not. It would be difficult given the ordered space and others' needs. Hence, landscape, actions, plot, even an erupting volcano must be imagined, and the battle between the good forces and the bad must be carried out in Isaac's head. (p. 72)

    The relationship between the imagined and the real is one of the intriguing subjects explored by Middlebrooks. Since the relatively recent recognition in Western culture of childhood as a distinct developmental stage, children's imaginative or pretend play along with their art has been researched and written about a good deal by psychologists, sociologists, educators, and others (Carini, 1982; Cobb, 1977; Opie, 1969; Paley, 1981; Sobel, 1993; Winnicott, 1971). Middlebrooks's book adds to the literature by presenting examples of children's invented places described in the children's own terms - their words and images, their expressed intentions. Her accounts once again show that for children the border between the real and the not real is less obdurate than for most adults. Some of the children, all girls, intentionally blur that border by closely relating their play to everyday life ("life both as they know it and as they would like it to be"):

    Michelle says they make it real by acting like they "really are" mothers who "really own" the things that mothers are supposed to own - a house, for example. And that, Michelle says, "always seems real." (p. 83)

    These six children, like most children perhaps, move into their imaginary landscapes consciously and intentionally, bringing to them energy, focus, and ingenuity. Although they know the difference between their inventions and real life, they choose to believe in the reality of the unreal. A willingness to believe lies behind the time-honored key to entry into imaginary worlds: "Let's pretend . . ." In an essay, I once quoted an exchange in which a young child explains the nature of play, in slightly condescending terms, to an apparently somewhat obtuse adult:

    A kindergarten child, asked whether his toy gun was "real," replied, "No, it's not a real gun but you have to pretend it's real." (Engel, 1987, p. 69)

    The places and activities described by the children in Middlebrooks's book, although updated and to some degree adapted to the immediate circumstances of their lives, share a number of basic attributes with those invented worlds of traditional children's literature: secrecy (The Secret Garden, Burnett, 1911), drama or plot (Treasure Island, Stevenson, 1883), distinctive characters or roles (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain, 1876), a degree of autonomy (Mowgli in The Jungle Books, Kipling, 1894), and the semblance of reality (Little Women, Alcott, 1868). The settings, props, and dialogues described in Getting to Know City Kids have similar characteristics. To take one example from the book, Michael and his brother, playing in their apartment over weekends, create a structure with pillows and a blanket that serves as a basic set. Michael, a ten-year-old of Puerto Rican background, lives with his mother, father, and younger brother, Allen. The brothers play variations on two games -"casino" and cops-and-robbers - and the main prop for each is Monopoly play money. For cops-and-robbers, "the bakery that is robbed becomes a police station, a courthouse and, finally, a jail - then back to a store when the inmate, having served his term, is released" (p. 107).

    It's a time, Michael says, "when we are all happy because we're alone and we could do whatever we want: we could yell, play, and bounce the ball" (p. 109).

    No adult eyes, no outside interference, the availability of materials for constructing a set, a realistic prop (Monopoly money), several defined roles, and two alternative plots that Michael and his brother can play over and over. And it is all wholly under the players' control: they choose the plot, adapt the scenery, and act the parts, bringing to their play both ingenuity and determination.

    There seemed to be a tacit agreement between Middlebrooks and her informants that their make-believe worlds were serious creations, worthy of an adult's considerable investment of time and thought. Middlebrooks understands that "'fun' is serious, complex and purposeful" (p. 143). In his book, Closely Observed Children, Michael Armstrong (1980) makes a similar point about children engaged in activities in which they are personally invested:

    In describing the intellectual life of a class of eight and nine year old children I have sought to draw attention to one particular feature of the early life of reason which seems to me to be of special consequence for the course of intellectual growth. That feature is the seriousness of purpose in children's thought and action: their high intent. We can observe it in their early writings, their art, their mathematics and their play; in every activity which absorbs them intellectually and emotionally. (p. 206)

    The six children whose "world-making" is described in Middlebrooks's book display the kind of seriousness and "high intent" Armstrong sees as profoundly educational. Both these qualities of mind, for example, can be seen in the strategies Ayisha describes for convincing "Housing" to respect their clubhouse built in a tree on public property:

    Ayisha: I'm going to give you some advice. Before you make your clubhouse make sure to tell Housing to leave it up there.

    Sally (I try to sound unconvinced): How are you going to convince Housing?

    Ayisha: Convince them it's your dream. And tell them that you wanted to leave it just there for one week. And anything happens to it, that you'll be responsible and everything. And if anything happens to any of us, we would not blame it on you, we would blame it on ourselves. 'Cause we're the one who want to keep it up there. And just go like that. (p. 103)

    The question then for educators is how to make constructive use within the school walls of the kind of intense, creative energy and intellectual commitment children bring to their play. Middlebrooks has three suggestions that she explains briefly and for which she gives precedents in the work of other educators and writers: 1) create a rich environment (Isaacs, 1968; Hawkins, 1974); 2) allow children to participate actively in their learning (Lortie, 1975; the work of Dorothy Heathcote in Wagner, 1976), and 3) teach by listening (Duckworth, 1987). Although perhaps implicit in the foregoing, I would emphasize the central role of the arts in learning. Play and art are both crucial to children's development in somewhat similar ways: form and content in each case are decided essentially by the child. Also contrary to common popular assumptions, both involve invention and serious intellectual effort. One might say that art in all its forms allows the creative imagination to "play." Continuous involvement in the arts in grades K-12 provides opportunities for children to come up with ideas, demonstrate competence, and invent areas of learning.

    Finally, I would have liked a more extensive discussion in the book's conclusion about the implications of this research for schools and teaching. Middlebrooks's insights could be of great value to the educational establishment, particularly in reference to the intellectual stretching entailed in children's world-making. Children's lively intelligence, curiosity, and eager imaginative exploration of the world in which they are growing up are all potential assets for schools and schooling. Ayisha, talking about the drawing she made of their clubhouse, says,

    and this shows you what we was imaginating and what this would look like if we put our minds to it. (p. 14)

    Rex, asked about his future, talks about his imagined past:

    I think about what I used to be or something that I'm probably reincarnated or something. . . . Like sometimes I still believe in that lost city of Atlantis. I think I used to be some kind of animal in it. (p. 136)

    Unfortunately, most schools are so intent on their own agendas that they fail to connect with children's passionate interests or recognize evidence of a different kind of "intelligence," one of which, for instance, enabled Rex to design and build an indoor tent with a sheet:

    Sally: So you just kind of made the structure up? . . . Did somebody else in the family -

    Rex: Nope, I just went about it.

    Sally: But then you had to figure out where to do it, what to use.

    Rex: Not really, it just came inside my head.

    Sally: Okay.

    Rex: My mother says that I'm like smart in all of this. (p. 134)

    Too often schools fail to engage children in the curriculum, either intellectually or imaginatively.

    However, by the nature of her data and the power of the children's own words and images, Middlebrooks convinces the reader that children indeed act on their own with energy and "high intent"; that no matter how bleak their circumstances, children are - as they have always been - capable of inventing "worlds" and all kids, in spite of widely held beliefs to the contrary, are lively, competent, and imaginative. In sum, city kids, like other kids, continue to play and through their play expand and enrich their lives.
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    Fall 2000 Issue


    HER Classic Reprint - Student Social Class and Teacher Expectations
    The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Ghetto Education
    Ray C. Rist
    Late Immersion and Language of Instruction in Hong Kong High Schools
    Achievement Growth in Language and Nonlanguage Subjects
    Herbert W. Marsh, Kit-Tai Hau, Chit-Kwong Kong
    The Thing Never Speaks for Itself
    Lacan and the Pedagogical Politics of Clarity
    Douglas Sadao Aoki

    Book Notes

    Has Feminism Changed Science?
    By Londa Schiebinger

    Making Our High Schools Better
    By Anne Westcott Dodd and Jean L. Konzal

    Women’s Science
    By Margaret A. Eisenhart and Elizabeth Finkel, with Linda Behm, Nancy Lawrence, and Karen Tonso

    Between Church and State
    By James W. Fraser

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