Vivian Gussin Paley, renowned early education researcher and Laboratory Schools teacher, 1929–2019

UChicago alum and longtime educator studied role of play in children’s growth

Vivian Gussin Paley was a keen observer of young children, defining in her work a key tenet of how they should negotiate relationships in class and on the playground—that no child should tell another: “You can’t play with us.”

A renowned educator and researcher of early childhood education who spent most of her career at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, Paley died July 26 at the age of 90.

Paley, PhB’47, who spent most of her nearly four decades teaching at Lab, wrote 13 books about children based on her experiences in the classroom. Paley was Lab’s most prominent example of teachers who contribute to academic scholarship in the area of education.

In 1989 Paley received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in recognition of her special contributions to education, which included developing a “story playing” technique that helps teachers understand how children’s natural interest in fantasy can be used to help them learn. Stories, which students can tell or act out, play a central role in children’s growth, she contended. In particular, Paley was interested in issues of fairness and the ways in which students understand the concept.

Among themselves, children tell and act out fantasies to describe their feelings and ideas, she wrote. ”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,” she explained.

Paley’s research focused on the ways in which youngsters grow socially as well as intellectually. Her books included You Can’t Say You Can’t Play (1993), The Kindness of Children (1999) and A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play (2004).

She also took on difficult topics, including the role of race in the classroom, which she explored in Kwanzaa and Me (1995) and White Teacher (1979), among other titles, for which she received critical acclaim.

Psychologist David Elkind, who came to the Laboratory Schools as part of a 1992 conference on parenting, wrote in The New York Times about Paley’s work: “Vivian Paley is an artist whose medium is children in the classroom. The end product of her year’s work is a group of children who can live comfortably with themselves and with one another.”

The importance of play for children

Vivian Gussin Paley was born Jan. 25, 1929 in Chicago. She received her PhB from the University of Chicago in 1947 and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Newcomb College in 1950. She began her teaching career in New Orleans in the 1950s, and later in Great Neck, New York. It was during her time teaching in New Orleans that she began to reflect on some of the ways in which childhood learning at the time was being choked by an overemphasis on strict learning boundaries (e.g., that children could only be allowed to learn how to write in capital letters, not lower-case) and perfunctory memorization.

While teaching in Great Neck, she began to reflect on how play can be the “most usable context” for interaction and intellectual growth among kindergartners. This view, however, flew in the face of what many early childhood education teachers thought at the time: that with the rise of television’s easily accessible portrayals of violence, children were becoming too intense and restless, and if anything, needed more vigilant limits on playtime.

She received her master’s degree in education from Hofstra University in 1965 and in 1971 joined the Laboratory Schools, where she remained teaching until her retirement in 1995. It was during the 1970s that she began writing books on early childhood learning.

Paley received many awards, including the Erikson Institute Award for Service to Children in 1987 and the John Dewey Society’s Outstanding Achievement Award in 2000. In 1997, Paley’s book, The Girl With the Brown Crayon, was awarded the Harvard University Press Virginia and Warren Stone Prize for the outstanding book about education and society. In 2004, Paley was named outstanding educator by the National Council of Teachers of English.

She is survived by her husband, Irving; her son, David, AB’73; three grandchildren; and three great grandchildren. She was predeceased by her son, Robert. 

In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to the Jewish National Fund, 78 Randall Ave., Rockville Center, NY 11570.

—Story first appeared on the Laboratory Schools website.