A Search for the Meaning of Play: A Workshop with Vivian Paley

By Todd Erickson, Teacher

“Our fantasy characters became our confidants. We would talk and listen to them and tell their stories at will. They did not mask reality; they helped us interpret and explain our feelings about reality.”
—Vivian Gussin Paley, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play

Vivian Paley

Vivian Paley

Story plays are processes in which children bring to life, in a dramatic fashion, the words and ideas from a story. Sometimes a story play emanates from the original ideas of a child, while other times it is based on an adult-authored book. Regardless of the source, the potential for creativity, social connection and emergent literacy is limitless. The importance of children’s storytelling and its intimate connection to their play was a central theme during an in-service training workshop the Bing teachers had with Vivian Paley on February 17, 2009. Before retiring, Paley was an early childhood educator for 37 years, mostly at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. She is the recipient of the MacArthur Award and more recently the John Dewey Society’s Outstanding Achievement Award. She is also the author of 11 books and an advocate for the importance of children’s play and storytelling.

During the daylong program, titled “A Search for the Meaning of Play,” Paley answered questions sent to her in advance by the Bing teachers. Using the questions as a springboard, Paley led the staff in an enthralling examination of children’s play, their stories and the teacher’s role in both. With a child who exhibits inflexibility in his play, Paley advised, “Don’t put him in the wrong. Respect him for his peculiarities. He has to figure out how the game of play and the game of life happens.” With respect to children with challenging behaviors, Paley noted, “What is judged in any child’s story is the teacher’s behavior and reaction. Much of what children learn as they move through school (putting down others, exclusion) comes from teachers. Children watch teachers and how they treat children they don’t like.” For the newer teachers on our staff, Paley offered a single piece of advice: “One child at a time, be nice to them. Show them you like them. That is your entree into heaven.”

While discussing guiding story plays, Paley pointed out that “there is no one way to proceed. Honor [the children’s] process. You will not make a mistake if you try something. You will not spoil anything.”

After lunch, Paley and the Bing staff were joined by teachers and students from the Stanford Teacher’s Education Program, which brought the number in attendance to around 60. Paley described children’s storytelling as a vital communal and social function. “Children become the characters in a certain plot and announce, ‘This is who I am.’ To explain dramatically, ‘Who I am’ is to join the community.”

Paley described at length her two child-authored story play formats. In the first, children individually dictate their stories to her and then congregate shortly thereafter to act them out. In the second, which she dubbed her “shortcut,” the story is written and then immediately performed.

To help bring this potent process to life, Paley engaged attendees to act out a few previously written, child-authored storyplays. The adults present were able to witness firsthand this story play process, which, Paley assured, “makes children happy, creates friendships, builds community.”

In the weeks following Paley’s visit, Bing’s classrooms have been alive with dinosaurs, pigs, monsters and an endless parade of characters surfacing with urgency and creativity from the fertile minds of Bing children, creating friendships and community [see curriculum articles on storytelling on pages 15 and 20]. This activity, Paley gently reminds us, “is a tool for the rest of life. Playing is life.”

Here is one such story play experience that transpired in West AM:
“I’m an angler fish. I’m in the deep sea. It’s dark there. I just have a light on my back so I can see.” A teacher narrates Jack’s story as Jack moves around our stage on the rug with the slow, deliberate motion of a very serious angler fish. His friends gathered to watch his every move.

“I meet a deep sea worm.” Nina slithers from her offstage chair onto the performance area. “I meet an avocado pit.” Henry dutifully drops into a ball on the floor next to Nina. “I meet a hatchet fish and gulper eel,” played by Austin and Clayton. “They fell on the beach.” Jack indicates that the beach is at one end of the stage. He joins the other players as they fall down on the floor, washed-up sea creatures hoping for a happy ending.

It arrives, in more ways that one. “A human comes and puts them back in the ocean. He carries them there.” The child cast as the human only seconds earlier has decided he doesn’t want to join the story play and has walked away. Dashiell is watching the action from offstage. “Dashiell, would you like to be the human?” the teacher asks. Dashiell smiles and quickly nods his head. He is the human. His stature swells as he pretends to pick up each sea creature. Delicately, he drops each back into the watery home. The teacher repeats Jack’s last lines. “A human comes and puts them back in the ocean. He carries them there. That’s the end.”