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.