On Listening to Vivian Gussin Paley

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D., RECE. 

For the past six months I have been writing, editing, revising, and rewriting a manuscript on professional friendships in early childhood education. When published, this book will be dedicated to all my professional friends, past, present, and future. Some of these relationships have stood the test of time, having spanned decades! With others, all that is left are memories. Still, it is with a grateful heart that I consider all the professional friendships that I have had in my lifetime. Gratitude can help us to initiate, maintain, and strengthen relationships. Gratitude can be a powerful way to grow professional friendships! I have tremendous gratitude for my circle of friends. Without them, I would feel disconnected, distant, and detached. Gratitude is the state of being grateful. It can be viewed as an emotional response to a gift. Our friends are a gift, no matter how old we are! With gratitude you acknowledge the goodness in your life in a way that helps you to make connections to others. I was recently so grateful to Fairy Dust Teaching and the amazing Sally Haughey, whom I am proud to call a friend, for reminding me of the words of Vivian Gussin Paley and how they inspired me as a young early childhood educator and sparked many great conversations with my friends.

Every time, I observe my own grandchildren engage in fantasy play, I think of Paley. I loved watching and listening to Reese as she engaged for hours with a set of nesting dolls. As she pretended that the dolls were a family and verbalized in different voices their interactions with each other, I noted that she counted and classified!

If fantasy play provides the nourishing habitat for the growth of cognitive, narrative, and social connectivity in young children, then it is surely the staging area for our common enterprise: an early school experience that best represents the natural development of young children. ~ Vivian Gussin Paley, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play

Paley reminded us over thirty years ago, to embrace an image of ourselves as researchers. The teacher as researcher is key to self-activated professional learning. Rather than wait to be told what experience to engage in, early childhood educators can take ownership of their professional learning when they see every day learning environments as research laboratories! This I learned from Vivian Gussin Paley who was a pioneering teacher and widely acclaimed author. She passed away three years ago at the age of 90. She emphasized the importance of storytelling in early childhood. Paley was a keen observer and listener of young children. Her work continues to be meaningful, perhaps more now than ever.

After I saw the post from Fairy Dust Teaching that calls for all of us to be our own researcher because we don’t know what we don’t know, I was motivated to revisit Paley’s work. When I found this article, written in 1986, it was like finding the gold at the end of a rainbow. Let me know what you think of it!

In the article, Paley recalls that the act of teaching became a daily search for the child’s point of view. It is the search that matters. Only later did Paley recognize that the search was actually research that “provided an open-ended script from which to observe, interpret, and integrate the living drama of the classroom”. I was fascinated to read how Paley used a tape recorder “to try to figure out why the children were lively and imaginative in certain discussions, yet fidgety and distracted in others”. She found that “whenever the discussion touched on fantasy, fairness, or friendship (“the three Fs” I began to call them), participation zoomed upward” (Paley, 1986, p. 124).

Fantasy, fairness, and friendship continue to be a focus in the lives of children. I am propelled by the words of Vivian Gussin Paley to promote the cultivation of a culture of friendship within the early childhood education ecosystem. I am curious about the impact this would have on young and old.

The key is curiosity, and it is curiosity, not answers, that we model. As we seek to learn more about a child, we demonstrate the acts of observing, listening, questioning, and wondering. When we are curious about a child’s words and our responses to those words, the child feels respected. The child is respected. “What are these ideas I have that are so interesting to the teacher? I must be somebody with good ideas.” Children who know others are listening may begin to listen to themselves, and if the teacher acts as the tape recorder, they may one day become their own critics. ~ Vivian Gussin Paley

Adults, like children learn when they have freedom to explore, inquire and play. You can play with big ideas that grow from your professional wonders. Professional learning will be more impactful to practice, if it arises from a seed of interest that can be cultivated to grow. Think about what interests you as a professional? Are you too interested in fantasy, fairness, and friendship? Please comment, my friends.

3 thoughts on “On Listening to Vivian Gussin Paley

  1. As always your words provoke me to think more deeply about my work with the children, so I thank you for that and with joy will go “down the rabbit hole” as I read more about Paley’s discoveries. Having just returned from England swaddled in a blanket of ‘old’ friendships, I look forward to building and strengthening ‘new’ friendships within the early years community. In school our first inquiry of the year is always about friendship, and each year it is fascinating to hear the children’s perspectives and experiences and to watch in wonder as they connect to each other. It is a journey of peaks and troughs for sure, but certainly a very worthwhile one!


    Liked by 1 person

  2. What better way to cultivate friendships than the beginning ot the school year. As new voices enter the classroom and mix with old voices. Children are developing, along with their teachers that curiosity that is so necessary in early childhood.
    It is refreshing to remember those educators who have paved the way. I especially am grateful for Bev Bos and the love of children she shared.


  3. Pingback: Cultivating a Culture of Friendship in Early Childhood Education | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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