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IEL Interviews with Early Childhood Education Notables: Interview with Vivian Paley About
Fall 2010

Illinois Early Learning staff asked Vivian Paley to share the lessons she learned teaching preschool and kindergarten children for 37 years, primarily at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.


Vivian PaleyVivian has written many books about her experiences in the classroom. She has also received numerous awards, including the Erikson Institute Award for Service to Children in 1987, a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989, the American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1998, and the John Dewey Society’s Outstanding Achievement Award in 2000. In 2004, Vivian was named Outstanding Educator by the National Council of Teachers of English.


Question Can you tell us a little about your background and the path that led you to early childhood education?

Answer Vivian Paley:
I was born and spent my growing up years in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago. I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago. Nothing in my own childhood or early schooling suggested that I would devote my professional life to early childhood education. A seminal experience for me happened early in my married life when my husband took a job in New Orleans. That move brought me to Newcomb College, which was connected to Tulane University, where I met a remarkable woman, Rena Wilson. Rena was a professor of education and involved in the Newcomb College Nursery School. Rena talked about play as the work of children long before it was a cliché. When I observed in her nursery school, Rena showed me how unpredictable and creative children are in their play. Rena helped me to see that the most interesting part of children’s play—the characters, plots, and dialogue—was something we often ignored. I thought to myself, “Wow, this is a subject that is far more exciting than anything else.” I was hooked from that point on.

After that experience, my husband and I started our own family and moved to New York. I received my teaching certification and master’s degree from Hofstra University on Long Island. My first teaching position was in a kindergarten classroom. At that time—this was in the 1960s—kindergarten consisted of half-day programs that grew out of the children’s and teachers’ inventiveness. Play was the primary focus in kindergarten, and it was up to the teacher to help children learn to play nicely, to listen to and respect one another, to follow their imaginations along creative paths in dramatic play, song, dance, poetry, picture books, and conversation. Reading and writing lessons did not begin before first grade.   

Question You were a preschool and kindergarten teacher for nearly 40 years. Many of those years were at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. You have published many books about the insights you gained through your experiences teaching young children. In The Boy on the Beach: Building Community through Play, your most recent book, you talk about how teachers help young children develop the "building blocks of a new society.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

Answer Vivian Paley:
The crux of my writing and teaching for many years has been how children create a kind of society in their first classroom experiences. The preschool classroom is often children’s first opportunity to create a set of fair rules that they and their classmates abide by. As a teacher, I watched how children use dramatic play to figure out answers to all the big questions that humankind has been concerned with since the beginning of time—how to respond to loneliness, fear, power, weakness, justice, and fairness. I observed how children use dramatic play to understand some of the very public, shocking portrayals of our world gone mad. I’m thinking of the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and the devastating floods resulting from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as described in my most recent books A Child’s Work and The Boy on the Beach

The theme of using children’s own stories and dramatic play was central to Wally’s Stories, my second book, where I talk about the need that children have to act out stories, to put their play onto a stage, so they can really listen to the characters and watch them speaking their own words. It is essential that we provide young children with time and space for spontaneous dramatic play in settings where adults are keen observers.

Question Can you say more about the importance of observing children to understand their behavior and needs?

Answer Vivian Paley:
I found that as a preschool or kindergarten teacher surrounded by the lively demands of 20 or 25 children it was often difficult to hear the voices of individuals in my classroom. Around the time of my book Wally’s Stories, I discovered the tape recorder. The tape recorder changed my life completely. I conducted a kind of experiment to see how well I was able to tune into the interests of each child in my classroom. I used the recorder to tape little discussions that might take place at an activity table in the doll corner or block area, during snack or lunch time. At the end of the day, I would transcribe the tape and try to pick out certain voices. I realized that I was unable to remember enough about individual children. There are those children who took center stage, whose problems demanded complete attention, or so it seemed. But what about the others? I used this experiment to increase my skills as an observer in my own classroom. I tried to write something specific I heard each child say or observed each child doing during that day. There were usually 16-18 students I could do this easily for. There were always 5-7 students for whom I drew a complete blank. I could not come up with a single thing these 5-7 children did or said that day in my classroom. I made myself engage with those individuals at the start of the next school day. Over time, I naturally developed my memory of specific recollections of each student in my classroom.

With practice, I found myself better at observing, remembering, and writing down anecdotes about each child. These anecdotes helped me connect with parents at conference time. Parents knew I was really paying attention to their child when I was able to share specific and detailed stories. That increased parents’ trust in me. My observation skills helped me to develop a checklist of concerns about each child as well. My observations also helped me become a better teacher because I could see different approaches children used to learning, to forming friends, and to being creative. By carefully listening and observing children in the classroom, I was also able to see issues of fairness. I asked myself: “Are we fair to those who don’t look like us or act the way we do? What does it mean to be fair with everyone?” As teachers and parents, we must look to ourselves to see what examples we are setting by our behavior, our words, our preferences, our level of tolerance, by those we exclude and isolate in the time-out chair. This formed the basis of my book White Teacher. And responding to patterns of rejection and acceptance among young children is central to my book You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.

Question Themes of fairness and justice come up frequently in your books.

Answer Vivian Paley:
This relates back to the original question about how teachers help children develop the building blocks of society. Through storytelling and dramatic play, children, with the help of observant teachers, develop a classroom environment—their society—based on rules of what I call the three “Fs”: fairness, fantasy, and friendship. As teachers of young children, we try to build this brave new world of kinder people in our classrooms, one where everyone has a story to tell from the earliest age and a right to have that story told and retold. In our classrooms, we can ensure that no one is ignored or feels locked out from telling his or her story. We often expect that when we celebrate everyone’s holidays and invite those who represent a variety of religions and cultures into our classroom that the children feel well represented. The children know better. There are other stories they want to share, the characters and plots that express their fantasy selves in everyday play. Family culture, community culture, and the culture of play deserve equal billing. 

Question Another theme in your books is the contribution of storytelling and imaginative play to children's development. Can you tell us more about that?

Answer Vivian Paley:
I discovered while writing many of my books—Wally’s Stories, The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter, Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays: Fantasy Play at Four—that children have a need to act out stories, to put their play onto a pretend stage so they can really listen to the characters and watch them speaking their own words—to see what works and what doesn’t work. Translating stories into theater also involves negotiation and other skills. If Jenny wants to be a sister but your story only has a brother, then children have to negotiate. Their negotiation requires empathy, taking into account the feelings of others. When children’s stories are dictated and acted out in the group, all members have a role—either as the storyteller, an actor, or the audience. When children see their story represented dramatically, they have an opportunity to say, “Yes, that’s what I mean.” It also provides children with plenty of time to discuss discrepancies between the true meaning of their story and what is being acted out, as well as other feelings that might be portrayed such as fear, loss, and friendship. Through storytelling and dramatic play, children and adults get to practice the skills of learning how to express ideas and how to listen to others. Teachers occasionally have to ask children to make adjustments in their dramatic play. For example, if a child’s story involves a superhero who runs and yells a lot, the teacher will need to ask: “How can your superhero or bad guy follow our classroom rules better? We need to find an appropriate way to play this so the rules of no running around or yelling can be followed as well as the rules of your story. We have to figure out a good way of doing this so I, as teacher, won’t have to say no.” Children understand the sincerity of that statement. They are not being blamed for their story’s imagery but offered assistance in making the story work in the classroom setting.

We should be concerned about the move away from valuing play as young children’s work, as Rena Wilson explained to me many years ago. Through their play and storytelling, children make sense of the world and learn the most important rules of living in a democratic society—how to listen to one another and treat one another with fairness and kindness.


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