Vivian Gussin Paley was a fierce advocate for the importance
of play in the classroom. As schools began to cut back on free play
opportunities, focusing instead on standardized testing and academic
achievement, Paley recognized the absolute necessity of play.
“We call it play. But
it forms the primary culture in the classroom. Fantasy and storytelling are the
abstract thinking of the young, carrying a deeper sense of reality than could
any form of adult thoughts.” -Vivian Gussin Paley
Paley was born January 25, 1929, in Chicago. She earned her
Ph.B. from University of Chicago in 1947 and her bachelor’s degree in
psychology from Newcomb College in 1950. She taught in New Orleans followed by
Great Neck, NY before earning her master’s degree in Education from Hofstra
University in 1965. She joined the Laboratory Schools in 1971 and remained there
until her retirement in 1995. Paley wrote a total of 13 books describing her
experiences in early childhood education and the need for fantasy play in the
She felt that allowing play in the classroom creates
community and intimacy that must be present before educators can move on to
other lessons. She outlined how children are able to work through social issues
through play because the children could envision new roles for themselves and
others. This helped the children to learn to have open minds.
She found great value in observing children’s fantasy play.
She said, “in each episode [of play], one can intuit a child’s individual
approach to the principles underlying fairness, friendship, fear, story-telling
and personal history.” Paley recommended educators journal their observations
of children’s play experiences.
Paley described fantasy play as an easy entrance into
abstract thinking for young children. This fantasy play has the potential for
so much rich language and for opportunities for children to develop important
social skills. In fantasy play, children understand unique rules, roles, and
expectations and they can explore real social issues within those constraints.
The core curriculum that Paley is perhaps best known for
consisted of the dictated story acted out on a pretend stage. Paley wrote down
the children’s stories, let them choose their own role, and then she chose the
rest of the actors. The audience of students would sit around the stage (a
masking tape rectangle on the floor of the classroom) and watch as the teacher
acted as narrator/ facilitator and the children’s stories came to life. She
believed that helping children create their own stories helped them take a step
further than fantasy play into abstract thinking. Her use of storytelling and
play-acting helped teach the children language skills, but also compassion and
fairness. It taught how to make and keep friendships and how to handle
She once said, “The power of story trumps the power of
authority.” She found there was no better way to connect with her students, to
get through to them, to understand them than writing and acting out their
According to the Museum of Play, her work “inspired decades
of research that demonstrated the value of imaginative play in the classroom
and beyond.” Those researchers, including Nicolopoulou, Cooper, and McNamee,
analyzed the value of her storytelling and story acting pedagogy. Her books and
theories played a strong role in promoting the role of storytelling and
dramatization in early childhood education.
This incredible pedagogy gave children a voice in a way that
they didn’t have before. Not only were their stories being told, but they were
being brought to life the same day! Their stories, their concerns, their joys
were being shared within their community of learners. Paley’s focus on story
telling and fantasy play is just as relevant today as it was in the 1980s. The
need to give students back the community and intimacy that is built through
sharing one’s story and through engaging regularly in meaningful imaginative
play is just as important today.
So, what can we as early childhood educators do with this
pedagogy? Put it in place! Paley urged educators, if you have time for only
three or four stories in a day, do three or four! If you have room for just
one, do one! But tell the children’s stories.
Before my introduction to Paley, I recognized the importance
of helping children write their stories, but it had never occurred to me to
bring them to life in this way. It is my intention to incorporate this
important opportunity for me to learn about my students and to help them learn
about themselves and their peers.
Paley also taught us that you can’t say, “You can’t play!” Paley
implemented this important golden, universal rule in her classroom. She went on
to title one of her books after it. She felt that if students were permitted to
exclude one another during fantasy play, they would go on to continue excluding
the child that did not quite fit in throughout the rest of school and
eventually throughout life. In fantasy play, there was always room for another.
It is easier for children to envision a role for an outsider in an imaginary
world with ever changing rules and boundaries than in the real world. By
requiring the children to be inclusive in play, they learned to be inclusive in
This is an aspect of Paley’s philosophy that can be
implemented in our classrooms immediately. Facilitating inclusion in fantasy
play can make a real difference in students’ social development.
In light of this mindset, Paley also did not allow students
to choose all the actors in his or her story. She explained that if students
always surround themselves with the same few children for their stories, they
will continue to surround themselves with the same few students in life. In the
name of inclusion, she allowed the child to choose his or her role and then she
selected actors from the class. She felt that just as there was no place for
favoritism in the classroom, there is no place for favoritism in the
play-acting. “Every person owns a place in the sun and a role in the ongoing
Paley gave us a beautiful way to share our students’
stories. It is up to us to make the time to do so.