Paley missed out on kindergarten as a child but spent her whole career there as an adult. (Photo by Chris Kirzeder)

Play ground, extended

Excerpts from our conversation with retired Laboratory Schools teacher Vivian Gussin Paley, PhB’47.

On her book topics

Well, you have to understand that most of my books took place in my own classroom. They’re highly focused on a particular subject while the life in the classroom goes on—the children’s play, their imaginative dialogues with each other that just go on continually. There’s a running dialogue in classrooms of young children, a make-believe dialogue going on all the time. You only need to focus, and the subject is there.

And so my first book [White Teacher, Harvard University Press, 1979] had to do with my own needs, to watch myself and what was going on in the classroom. But every book after that was determined by the children’s imaginative lives. Wally’s Stories (Harvard University Press, 1981) was next; Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner (University of Chicago Press, 1984), the next one; Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays (University of Chicago Press, 1988)—it’s as if the human being is born with titles, from “Peekaboo” on.

Frankly, [I realized I wanted to study play] when I stopped listening to myself so much and simply began listening to what the children were actually saying. And what they were saying was so much more interesting and imaginative and inventive than what I was saying. And I realized I just had to listen and I went and got myself a tape recorder and began to train myself in the use of the tape recorder. Putting the tape recorder on doesn’t require the training; it is in the growing skill of transcribing what you’re listening to.

On learning to transcribe

I had to trick myself. I realized straight on that a 90 minutes of tape has a lot of stuff in it you don’t want. But you couldn’t really know it until you transcribe 90 minutes of tape. So in the beginning, 90 minutes worth of tape would take me three hours to do. Well, clearly, experience was going to handle that. So that by the time my next book came, I was already doing 90 minutes of tape in 30 minutes.

Fast forwarding the stuff, because I had the context in which all of these conversations took place. My mind was getting focused. The way I tricked myself, as I said, was to never own more than one tape cassette. If I didn’t transcribe it the night or the early morning before, then I would either have to white it out by putting another on or simply do it by hand from memory. Doing it hand from memory was not good enough anymore because, like a good journalist, which I wasn’t, I wanted the exact words of children. Now I really wanted to know what this language of play is all about, how they express their logic.

On her research

Anthropologists are very interested in what I do. Two groups of people: social anthropologists and theater people. This summer, I keynoted the conference downtown, AATE, American Association of Theater and Education—essentially your drama people, your children’s theater people, your people who want to bring theater into younger and younger classrooms—what they wanted to hear from me was about letting the children invent the story and figuring out what your role might be as scribe, as stage director, so that is what, because there’s to different things but they’re both important. And that is the thing that theater people learn. This is spontaneous. A kind of Second City spontaneity going on constantly.

And of course the great thing about the preschool and kindergarten improv and the audience is that it is impossible to get it wrong. Somehow or other anything another child pretends or says is considered quite remarkable by all the other children. It’s almost as if they keep watching each other, wondering where does all this stuff come from?

[In my book] The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter (Harvard University Press, 1991), there wasn’t anything that little boy could do that would be considered bizarre by the children. You know? Here, the teachers are trying to give him labels, but it would be almost as if the critics spent their time trying to give Zero Mostel a label because he seems so different from everybody else, and the audiences of course are rolling in the aisles, loving him, laughing at him. This is the way that children respect each other’s inventions.

When I read the Three Pigs, which is of course wonderful for acting out—and never a day went by that, besides the children’s own dictated stories acted out, we didn’t act out books—and the Three Pigs was a popular one. The boys all could take their turns being the wolf, but I remember that when a little girl—this is kindergarten age—decided that the baby pig would stay home with the mother, would not be in any danger because the wolf would not huff at the mother’s house. The children loved it.

The idea that we can take a piece of literature and, if we want, put a different ending on it, well, of course is fun in play, but it’s really well into the beginning of an academic frame of mind. You can take a set of facts and you can find a different outcome if you play around with it. So all of this stuff, when it began to occur to me, this is really very intellectual material.

Given that the children are working from a different set of premises, their thinking is quite logical. We give them a curriculum at a very young age from our set of premises, so in a sense, we’re asking a child to think through a problem having walked in on Act Two. Act One is in the adult’s mind, and we can see why very often there’s a kind of puzzlement about an adult-offered problem and never a puzzlement about the problems they give each other. 

On her students’ perception of her writing

Even after I started writing books, the children could never put it together. I remember someone rushing into the classroom, apparently having walked to school past the 57th Street Bookstore, and a book with my picture on it was there because it was a new book. “Ah, teacher!” he said. “Your picture’s in the window! You’re picture’s on a book!” And I would say, “Well, I’m the author of the book.” Absolutely meant nothing.

On how kindergarten has changed over her years of teaching

There are a lot of different ways of doing kindergarten, nowadays especially. In the early days when I first started teaching, it was all play and more play and music and dancing and art and drama. The human capacity for creativity at a young age, the imagination, is not to be so easily defeated, and I think most children can do both.

I worry not what the new, more academic curriculum is so much as does it replace the child’s imaginative play and storytelling? I think that most children come with the skills to be able to move back and forth in both worlds. If they are deprived, however, of their own free time to imagine other worlds, I wonder then what the effect is. I wonder about the future flexibility. Time will tell. Because everything here is flexibility.

Here’s an idea, here’s an idea, let’s put ‘em together, let’s change them. Everything here is the understanding that miraculously, we are given the skill at a very early age to pretend lots of different roles, and judge the comfort level and the adaptability of each role, and we finally figure out at a very young age that we determine the character.

The character does not determine us. So if I decide to be Darth Vader one day and the baby pig the next day, that’s fine. You can’t do that in a math lesson. Now the math lesson may be important—I’m not going to get on a soapbox about that. But allowing the mind to exercise itself with all kinds of different outcomes, that requires an older math student. Whereas a three-year-old can figure out a dozen different ways on the spot to play mommy and baby.

For most of my teaching career, which spans almost 40 years, for the preschool and kindergarten experience of our own children, whose ages are between 50 and 60, and all of my own childhood, the view of the young child was pretty much the same. That children learn—and it was not very different from what Dewey said about children, although he was not particularly studying the preschool child—that we learn almost everything we need to know before formal learning, in those first five or six years of life of play. And face-to-face interaction with all kinds of people: children, family, and of course there was nothing on a screen to look at. Big difference.

Big difference.

My first public-school kindergarten job, morning kindergarten, afternoon kindergarten, was in Great Neck, NY, and one of the first meetings that we kindergarten teachers had with all the first-grade teachers had one goal only: to warn us, hands off academics—that’s first grade. “All right,” they said, “you can teach the big letters, but not the lowercase. Don’t give them the pencil, only a fat crayon. Let them work at their imaginations, at learning how to play with each other, learning how to listen, how to tell their own story and listen to someone else’s. How to use their bodies freely in art, dancing, gymnastics, but mainly to understand the wonders of language.

When they come into first grade, we will tell them on the first day of school, this is a big A, and this a little a.” That’s not the case anymore. How this new curriculum is going to work out, I hope there are lots and lots of people studying it to watch. We now expect at the end of the kindergarten year what used to be expected at the end of the first-grade year. In other words, there’s a year gone astray. Preschool is in the situation where it has to start getting ready for a kindergarten that looks like first grade. So then, where’s kindergarten? Kindergarten has begun to look like first grade, preschool wants to get ready for kindergarten that has begun to look like first grade, and so any way you look at it, there’s a year missing. A year of what? Here’s the way I look at it: a year of lost stories. 

Now, the good news is I’m not the only one who realizes this. And wherever I go, being with preschool or kindergarten teachers or first-grade teachers, a dozen at a time or a thousand at a time, they understand the problem right now. Hardly a day passes that I don’t get a letter from a kindergarten teacher, preschool teacher, or first-grade teacher, “We all wanna keep our jobs."

The thing is, how do we pull free play back into the curriculum and have time for the children’s own invented stories and be responsible for the curriculum that must go on? And I think almost every preschool and kindergarten teacher I meet is aware of the desire to do this and is trying to do this. With everybody working on the problem, solutions will come, but when they come, you won’t see headlines in the New York Times—they’ll come classroom by classroom. Group by group. That’s the way they’ll come. Because life with little children is very local. It’s right here and now. Is this an unfair thing that just happened to Jimmy? Why? What can we do about it? Right now we’re not dealing with all the Jimmys in the world and all the fair and unfair situations that could—no. And we’re learning how to solve local problems toward what end? Well, if I can name-drop one name, toward the same end Socrates was trying to find: what makes people happy. And of course he found, being in a fair, just environment makes people happy. And that’s just what little children find out if given the opportunity. It’s amazing. I wonder if he taught preschool. 

On the teacher’s role in free-association play

The teacher’s role is very important. Because peace and order need to be kept. And connections need to be made between all the ideas and play and responses and problems that have gone on—connections to conversations, to books. This is a very artistic role that the teacher has because it’s not down there written in guidebooks. It’s every day and each child at a particular point trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s great fun once you get the hang of it, for teacher and parents alike. There’s no difference there—you are the Greek chorus, the scribe, the stage director, but also the ultimate judge. 

On training new teachers

I urge teachers of young children—all the way through the primary grades, but certainly beginning with preschool—I urge them to do what I always did, but add anther facet to it: study their own children, their own young children, their own classroom, and keep a daily journal of what the difference seems to be when the children have free play, when the children are dictating and acting out their own stories versus when the curriculum comes from above—see for yourself what should be expanded, what should be pulled back. And that’s terrific for someone who wants to write about the classroom or simply be more thoughtful about he classroom.

Like the children, you have to find it for yourself by continuing to watch, ask your own questions, come up with your own discoveries. I don’t think much has changed since I discovered well into my teaching career that if a subject concerns in some way friendship, fantasy, fairness, or fear, children will keep up a dialogue with you all day long. And with each other.

Now, everything that the children do with each other, somewhere or another involves the four Fs: fantasy, fear, friendship, fairness. As the years went by, I began to feel—and especially as I carried these discussions into the older grades—that one part of this is what the social structure is all about. And the little ones are preparing for it, that one holds out all of our lives above everything else, fairness. Fairness. That’s what perhaps is the reason for the social structure. And the little children start understanding this by age two and three.