Vivian Gussin Paley’s Child-Centred Approach: Storytelling, Play, and Classroom Community

Vivian Gussin Paley's Child-Centred Approach: Storytelling, Play, and Classroom Community

A Comprehensive Guide for Early Years Professionals and Students

Table of contents

Vivian Gussin Paley developed an influential child-centred educational philosophy for early childhood education. Her approach has three core components:

  • A storytelling and story acting curriculum
  • An emphasis on fantasy play
  • Creating an inclusive classroom community

Paley’s storytelling curriculum involves children dictating stories to teachers, which are then acted out by the class. This practice supports language development and social-emotional growth.

Fantasy play forms a key part of Paley’s philosophy. She viewed imaginative play as crucial for cognitive development and social skills.

The inclusive classroom community in Paley’s approach aims to ensure all children feel a sense of belonging. This fosters increased empathy among students.

Paley’s child-centred methods differ from more structured academic approaches to early education. However, her ideas align with other play-based learning philosophies.

This article explores Paley’s background, core concepts, practical applications, and ongoing influence in early childhood education. It provides insights for early years professionals, educators and students on implementing her approach.

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Introduction and Background to Vivian Gussin Paley’s Work

In a world where early childhood education often grapples with standardisation, Vivian Gussin Paley championed the power of play and storytelling. Her work reshaped our understanding of children’s learning and development, influencing educators worldwide.

This article explores Paley’s theories, their implementation, and their impact on early childhood education and professional practice.

Early Life and Education

Vivian Gussin Paley was born on 25 January 1929 in Chicago, Illinois. She pursued her higher education at the University of Chicago, earning a BA in Philosophy in 1950. Paley’s career in education began in the 1950s and spanned nearly four decades. She dedicated most of her professional life to teaching nursery school and kindergarten at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where she honed her innovative approaches to early childhood education (Paley, 2004).

Notable Achievements

  • MacArthur Fellowship (1989)
  • Erikson Institute Award for Service to Children (2000)
  • American Book Award (1998) for “The Girl with the Brown Crayon”

Historical Context

Paley developed her ideas during a period of significant change in early childhood education. The 1960s and 1970s saw a shift towards more structured, academic approaches in preschools (Elkind, 2007).

Key influences on Paley’s work:

  • John Dewey’s philosophy of experiential learning
  • Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development
  • Jean Piaget’s cognitive development theory

These influences shaped Paley’s child-centred approach, emphasising the importance of play and storytelling in learning and development.

Main Concepts and Theories

  1. Storytelling and Story Acting Curriculum
    • Children dictate stories to teachers
    • Stories are acted out by classmates
    • Promotes literacy, social skills, and creativity
  2. Fantasy Play
    • Essential for cognitive and social development
    • Allows children to make sense of their world
  3. Classroom as a Community
    • Inclusive environment where all voices are heard
    • Promotes empathy and social justice

Paley’s work challenged conventional wisdom, demonstrating the profound learning that occurs through play and storytelling. Her theories continue to influence early childhood education practices globally (Cooper, 2009).

Vivian Gussin Paley’s Key Concepts and Theories

Vivian Gussin Paley’s work centres on the importance of play and storytelling in early childhood education. Her theories have reshaped our understanding of how children learn and develop, emphasising the role of imagination, social interaction, and narrative in cognitive and emotional growth.

Storytelling and Story Acting Curriculum

Paley’s most renowned contribution to early childhood education is her Storytelling and Story Acting Curriculum. This approach integrates literacy, social skills, and creativity into a cohesive learning experience.

Key Components:

  1. Story Dictation: Children dictate their stories to a teacher, who transcribes them verbatim.
  2. Story Acting: The class acts out each child’s story, with the author directing the performance.

This method allows children to express their thoughts and feelings through narrative, while simultaneously developing language skills and social awareness (Paley, 1990).


  • Enhances oral language development
  • Promotes early literacy skills
  • Encourages social interaction and collaboration
  • Boosts self-esteem and confidence

Research has shown that this approach significantly improves children’s narrative skills and social understanding (Cooper, 2009).

Fantasy Play

Paley emphasised the critical role of fantasy play in children’s cognitive and social development. She argued that through imaginative play, children make sense of their world and explore complex social dynamics.

Key Aspects:

  • Social Exploration: Children use play to navigate relationships and understand social norms.
  • Cognitive Development: Fantasy play enhances problem-solving skills and abstract thinking.
  • Emotional Growth: Imaginative scenarios allow children to process and express emotions safely.

Paley observed that fantasy play provides a framework for children to rehearse real-life situations and develop empathy (Paley, 2004).

Classroom as a Community

Paley advocated for creating inclusive classroom environments where all voices are heard and valued. This concept emphasises the importance of building a sense of community within the early years setting.

Core Principles:

  1. Inclusivity: Ensuring every child feels welcomed and respected.
  2. Democratic Participation: Encouraging children to contribute to classroom decisions.
  3. Conflict Resolution: Teaching children to resolve disputes through dialogue and understanding.

This approach fosters empathy, social justice, and a sense of belonging among young learners (Paley, 1992).

Relationships Between Concepts and Theories

Paley’s theories are interconnected, each supporting and enhancing the others:

  • Storytelling and Play: The Story Acting Curriculum often incorporates elements of fantasy play, allowing children to bring their imaginative worlds to life.
  • Community and Storytelling: The inclusive classroom community provides a safe space for children to share their stories and act them out.
  • Play and Community: Fantasy play scenarios often reflect and reinforce the social dynamics of the classroom community.

Developmental Progression in Storytelling and Play

While Paley did not outline specific developmental stages, her work suggests a progression in children’s storytelling and play abilities:

  1. Early Exploration:
    • Children engage in parallel play
    • Stories are simple and often fragmented
  2. Emerging Collaboration:
    • Children begin to play cooperatively
    • Stories become more structured with basic plot elements
  3. Complex Interaction:
    • Children engage in sophisticated role-play
    • Stories feature complex characters and plotlines
  4. Advanced Narrative Skills:
    • Children create and act out intricate, multi-character stories
    • Play scenarios reflect deep understanding of social dynamics

Paley emphasised that this progression is fluid and individual to each child, influenced by factors such as language development, social experiences, and cultural background (Paley, 1990).

Paley’s theories continue to influence early childhood education, encouraging educators to value play, storytelling, and community-building as essential components of children’s learning and development.

Vivian Gussin Paley’s Contributions to the Field of Education and Child Development

Impact on Educational Practices

Vivian Gussin Paley’s work has significantly influenced early childhood education practices worldwide. Her emphasis on storytelling and play has reshaped classroom environments and teaching methods.

Key impacts include:

  1. Integration of storytelling: Many early years settings now incorporate daily storytelling and story acting sessions. For example, the Boston Public Schools implemented Paley’s approach in their K1 and K2 classrooms, resulting in improved language skills and social-emotional development (Mardell, 2013).
  2. Valuing play: Paley’s work has reinforced the importance of unstructured play time in early years curricula. The UK’s Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework now emphasises the role of play in learning and development (Department for Education, 2021).
  3. Child-led learning: Paley’s approach encourages educators to follow children’s interests. This principle is evident in the Reggio Emilia approach, which has gained popularity in the UK and globally (Edwards et al., 2011).
  4. Inclusive practices: Paley’s concept of the classroom as a community has influenced inclusive education practices. For instance, the Mosaic Approach, developed by Clark and Moss (2001), builds on Paley’s ideas to ensure all children’s voices are heard in early years settings.

Shaping our Understanding of Child Development

Paley’s theories have deepened our understanding of how children learn and develop, particularly in social and cognitive domains.

Key contributions include:

  1. Social development: Paley’s work highlighted the role of storytelling and play in developing empathy and social understanding. Research by Cooper (2009) demonstrated that children who participated in story acting showed improved perspective-taking abilities.
  2. Language development: Paley’s storytelling approach has been linked to enhanced oral language skills. A study in Scottish primary schools found that children who engaged in storytelling and story acting showed significant improvements in vocabulary and narrative skills (McNaughton, 2017).
  3. Cognitive development: Paley’s emphasis on fantasy play has informed our understanding of how children develop abstract thinking. Research by Bodrova and Leong (2007) built on Paley’s work, showing how make-believe play contributes to the development of self-regulation and cognitive flexibility.
  4. Emotional development: Paley’s approach provides children with a safe space to explore and express emotions. This has influenced practices in supporting children’s emotional literacy and well-being (Dowling, 2014).

Relevance to Contemporary Education

Paley’s ideas remain highly relevant to contemporary education, addressing current challenges and informing innovative practices.

Current applications include:

  1. Technology integration: Paley’s storytelling approach has been adapted for digital platforms. For example, the Story Maker app, inspired by Paley’s work, allows children to create and share digital stories (Kucirkova, 2019).
  2. Diversity and inclusion: Paley’s emphasis on creating inclusive classroom communities aligns with current efforts to promote diversity in early years settings. The Persona Doll approach, which uses storytelling to address issues of diversity, builds on Paley’s ideas (Brown, 2008).
  3. Mental health support: Paley’s use of storytelling as a means of emotional expression has informed approaches to supporting children’s mental health. The Therapeutic Storywriting method, used in UK schools, draws on Paley’s work to help children process difficult emotions (Waters, 2014).
  4. Assessment practices: Paley’s child-centred approach has influenced observational assessment methods in early years settings. The Learning Stories approach, popular in New Zealand and gaining traction in the UK, aligns with Paley’s emphasis on valuing children’s individual narratives (Carr & Lee, 2012).

Paley’s contributions continue to shape early childhood education, promoting child-centred, play-based learning that supports holistic development. Her work remains a cornerstone of progressive early years practice, informing both policy and pedagogy in the field.

Criticisms and Limitations of Vivian Gussin Paley’s Theories and Concepts

Vivian Gussin Paley’s work has significantly influenced early childhood education. However, her theories and methods have faced criticisms and limitations. This section examines these critiques to provide a balanced view of Paley’s contributions.

Criticisms of Research Methods

Paley’s research methodology has been subject to scrutiny:

  • Lack of systematic data collection: Paley’s work primarily relied on her personal observations and anecdotes. Critics argue this approach lacks the rigour of systematic, quantitative research methods (Anning, 2004).
  • Limited sample size: Paley’s studies focused on small groups of children in specific settings, raising questions about the generalisability of her findings (Nicolopoulou, 2010).
  • Potential observer bias: As both teacher and researcher, Paley’s dual role may have introduced bias into her observations and interpretations (Genishi & Dyson, 2009).

For example, Paley’s observations of storytelling and play were largely confined to her own classroom at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. This setting may not represent the diverse contexts of early childhood education globally.

Challenges to Key Concepts or Theories

Some of Paley’s core ideas have been challenged:

  • Overemphasis on fantasy play: Critics argue that Paley’s focus on fantasy play may undervalue other forms of play and learning experiences (Grieshaber & McArdle, 2010).
  • Universality of storytelling: The assumption that all children naturally engage in storytelling has been questioned, particularly in cross-cultural contexts (Chesworth, 2016).
  • Teacher-centred approach: Despite advocating for child-led learning, some argue that Paley’s method still places the teacher in a central, controlling role (Egan, 2012).

For instance, in settings where academic readiness is prioritised, educators may find it challenging to implement Paley’s play-based approach fully.

Contextual and Cultural Limitations

Paley’s work has been critiqued for its limited consideration of diverse contexts:

  • Cultural specificity: Paley’s theories are largely based on Western, middle-class educational settings, potentially limiting their applicability in diverse cultural contexts (Fleer, 2015).
  • Socioeconomic considerations: Critics argue that Paley’s approach may not adequately address the challenges faced in under-resourced educational settings (Yelland, 2011).
  • Language diversity: The storytelling approach may present challenges in multilingual classrooms or settings where children are learning the language of instruction (Cummins, 2000).

For example, in a study of Paley’s approach in a diverse London nursery, Cremin et al. (2018) found that adaptations were necessary to accommodate children from various linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

Addressing the Criticisms and Limitations in Practice

Despite these criticisms, Paley’s work continues to offer valuable insights:

  • Flexible implementation: Educators can adapt Paley’s methods to suit their specific contexts. For instance, Typadi and Hayon (2010) successfully modified the storytelling approach for use with children with hearing impairments.
  • Complementary approaches: Paley’s ideas can be integrated with other educational theories and practices. The Mosaic Approach (Clark & Moss, 2001) combines Paley’s storytelling with multiple methods of gathering children’s perspectives.
  • Cultural responsiveness: Educators can incorporate culturally relevant stories and play scenarios to make Paley’s approach more inclusive. Mardell and Abo-Zena (2010) demonstrate how this can be achieved in diverse classrooms.
  • Research-informed practice: Practitioners can supplement Paley’s ideas with findings from more recent, systematic studies on play and storytelling in early childhood education (Nicolopoulou et al., 2015).

By acknowledging these limitations and adapting Paley’s approach accordingly, early years professionals can harness the strengths of her work while addressing its shortcomings. This balanced approach ensures that the valuable insights from Paley’s theories continue to benefit children’s learning and development in diverse early years settings.

Practical Applications of Vivian Gussin Paley’s Work

Translating Vivian Gussin Paley’s theories into practical strategies enhances early years education. Her ideas on storytelling, play, and inclusive classrooms offer valuable tools for curriculum design, classroom management, and family engagement. Implementing Paley’s approaches promotes children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Application in Curriculum and Lesson Planning

Paley’s work informs curriculum design and daily activities in early years settings:

  • Storytelling and Story Acting: Incorporate daily storytelling sessions where children dictate stories to educators. These stories are then acted out by the class. This practice enhances language skills, creativity, and social understanding (Paley, 1990).
  • Fantasy Play Corners: Designate areas in the classroom for imaginative play, equipped with open-ended materials. This encourages children to create and explore their own narratives (Paley, 2004).
  • Inclusive Group Projects: Design activities that require collaboration and shared decision-making, reflecting Paley’s concept of the classroom as a community (Cooper, 2009).

For example, the Boston Public Schools implemented a storytelling and story acting curriculum based on Paley’s work. They reported improvements in children’s vocabulary, narrative skills, and peer relationships (Mardell, 2013).

Strategies for Classroom Management and Interaction

Paley’s ideas inform approaches to creating a positive classroom environment:

  • Democratic Decision-Making: Involve children in setting classroom rules and resolving conflicts, fostering a sense of ownership and community (Paley, 1992).
  • Observation and Documentation: Use careful observation of children’s play and stories to inform teaching practices and track development (Cremin et al., 2018).
  • Scaffolding Play: Educators participate in children’s play, offering gentle guidance to extend learning opportunities without dominating the play scenario (Egan, 2012).

The Mosaic Approach, developed by Clark and Moss (2001), builds on Paley’s ideas, using multiple methods to listen to young children’s perspectives and inform classroom practices.

Engaging Families and Communities

Paley’s work extends beyond the classroom to involve families and communities:

  • Story Sharing: Encourage families to share cultural stories and traditions, which can be incorporated into classroom storytelling sessions (Mardell & Abo-Zena, 2010).
  • Play Workshops: Organise workshops for parents to understand the value of play and storytelling in their child’s development (Cooper, 2009).
  • Community Storytelling Events: Host events where children, families, and community members share and act out stories together (Cremin et al., 2018).

For instance, the Pen Green Centre in Corby, UK, uses Paley’s storytelling approach as part of their family engagement strategy, strengthening home-school connections (Whalley, 2017).

Overcoming Challenges and Barriers to Implementation

Implementing Paley’s ideas can face obstacles, but creative solutions exist:

  • Time Constraints: Integrate storytelling and play into existing routines. For example, use transition times for quick story sharing or incorporate storytelling into literacy blocks (Cooper, 2009).
  • Limited Resources: Use recycled materials for props and costumes in story acting. Engage families and the community in collecting open-ended materials for fantasy play (Anning, 2004).
  • Assessment Pressures: Document children’s progress through their stories and play scenarios, demonstrating learning and development across multiple domains (Nicolopoulou et al., 2015).
  • Diverse Needs: Adapt storytelling methods for children with different abilities or language backgrounds. Typadi and Hayon (2010) successfully modified Paley’s approach for children with hearing impairments.

Educators at Everton Nursery School and Family Centre in Liverpool overcame initial challenges in implementing Paley’s approach by starting small, gradually expanding their storytelling and story acting practice over time (Horner, 2019).

By creatively adapting Paley’s ideas to their specific contexts, early years professionals can harness the power of storytelling and play to create rich, inclusive learning environments. These practical applications demonstrate the enduring relevance of Paley’s work in supporting children’s holistic development.

Comparing Vivian Gussin Paley’s Ideas with Other Theorists

Understanding Vivian Gussin Paley’s work in relation to other child development theories provides a broader context for her contributions. This section compares Paley’s ideas with those of Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Loris Malaguzzi. Examining these comparisons deepens our understanding of child development and informs practice in early years settings.

Comparison with Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, emphasised the role of social interaction in cognitive development.


  • Social learning: Both Paley and Vygotsky stress the importance of social interaction in children’s learning and development (Bodrova & Leong, 2007).
  • Role of play: Both theorists view play as crucial for children’s cognitive and social development (Berk & Meyers, 2013).
  • Adult scaffolding: Paley and Vygotsky emphasise the role of adults in supporting children’s learning through guidance and interaction (Wood, 1998).


  • Cultural focus: Vygotsky places greater emphasis on cultural tools and symbols in learning, while Paley focuses more on narrative and storytelling (Nicolopoulou, 2010).
  • Theoretical framework: Vygotsky developed a comprehensive theory of cognitive development, whereas Paley’s work is more grounded in practical classroom observations (Anning, 2004).

For example, both theorists would value dramatic play in the classroom, but Vygotsky might focus on how cultural tools (like language) mediate this play, while Paley would emphasise the storytelling aspect.

Read our in-depth article on Lev Vygotsky here.

Comparison with Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, developed a stage theory of cognitive development.


  • Child-centred approach: Both Paley and Piaget view children as active constructors of their own knowledge (Mooney, 2013).
  • Importance of play: Both theorists recognise play as a crucial element in children’s learning and development (Singer & Singer, 2005).


  • Developmental stages: Piaget outlines specific cognitive developmental stages, while Paley’s approach is less stage-oriented (Nicolopoulou, 2010).
  • Role of social interaction: Paley places greater emphasis on the role of social interaction and storytelling in learning, compared to Piaget’s more individualistic focus (Egan, 2012).
  • Research methods: Piaget used clinical interviews and observations, while Paley relied primarily on naturalistic classroom observations (Genishi & Dyson, 2009).

For instance, in observing children’s play, Piaget might focus on how it reflects their cognitive stage, while Paley would be more interested in the social dynamics and narratives within the play.

Read our in-depth article on Jean Piaget here.

Comparison with Loris Malaguzzi

Loris Malaguzzi was the founder of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education.


  • Child as protagonist: Both Paley and Malaguzzi view children as capable and competent learners (Edwards et al., 2011).
  • Importance of expression: Both theorists emphasise the importance of children expressing themselves through multiple ‘languages’ or modes (Rinaldi, 2006).
  • Documentation: Both value careful observation and documentation of children’s learning processes (Cremin et al., 2018).


  • Focus on aesthetics: The Reggio approach places greater emphasis on visual arts and aesthetics, while Paley focuses more on verbal storytelling and dramatic play (Vecchi, 2010).
  • Environmental emphasis: Malaguzzi’s approach considers the environment as a ‘third teacher’, a concept less prominent in Paley’s work (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007).

For example, in documenting children’s learning, a Reggio-inspired setting might create visual panels showcasing children’s artistic processes, while a Paley-inspired approach might transcribe children’s stories and dramatisations.

Read our in-depth article on Loris Malaguzzi here.

Synthesis and Implications for Practice

Understanding these comparisons informs and enhances early years practice:

  • Integrating multiple perspectives allows for a more holistic approach to supporting children’s development.
  • Practitioners can draw on Vygotsky’s ideas about scaffolding, Piaget’s insights into cognitive development, Malaguzzi’s emphasis on multiple modes of expression, and Paley’s focus on storytelling and play.
  • For example, an early years setting might combine Paley’s storytelling approach with Reggio-inspired documentation, Vygotskian scaffolding techniques, and an awareness of Piagetian developmental stages.

Limitations and Challenges of Comparing Theorists

Comparing theorists presents challenges:

  • Theories are often grounded in specific cultural and historical contexts, making direct comparisons complex.
  • Oversimplification of complex ideas is a risk when making comparisons.
  • No single theory fully explains the complexity of child development.

Early years professionals should approach these comparisons critically, recognising the value and limitations of each perspective. This reflective approach ensures a nuanced understanding of child development theories and their practical applications.

Vivian Gussin Paley’s Legacy and Ongoing Influence

Vivian Gussin Paley’s contributions to early childhood education have left an indelible mark on the field. Her ideas continue to influence research, policy, and practice in early years settings worldwide. Understanding Paley’s legacy and ongoing influence is crucial for early years professionals and students to appreciate the evolution of child-centred pedagogy and narrative-based learning.

Impact on Contemporary Research

Paley’s work has inspired a wealth of contemporary research:

  • Storytelling and literacy development: Recent studies have expanded on Paley’s storytelling approach, exploring its impact on children’s literacy skills. For example, Nicolopoulou et al. (2015) found that children who participated in storytelling and story acting showed significant improvements in narrative comprehension and print awareness.
  • Play-based learning: Paley’s emphasis on play has influenced research into play-based pedagogies. A study by Weisberg et al. (2013) demonstrated that guided play, similar to Paley’s approach, enhances children’s learning outcomes in mathematics and spatial skills.
  • Inclusive classroom communities: Building on Paley’s concept of the classroom as a community, researchers have investigated the impact of inclusive practices on children’s social-emotional development. Kemple (2017) found that implementing Paley-inspired inclusive practices in preschool classrooms led to increased empathy and prosocial behaviour among children.

These research efforts have deepened our understanding of how narrative and play support children’s holistic development, informing evidence-based practices in early years settings.

Influence on Educational Policy and Curriculum

Paley’s ideas have shaped educational policies and curricula globally:

  • Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS): The UK’s EYFS framework incorporates elements of Paley’s philosophy, emphasising the importance of play-based learning and storytelling in early years settings (Department for Education, 2021).
  • Head Start Performance Standards: In the United States, the Head Start program has integrated Paley’s ideas about storytelling and inclusive classroom communities into its performance standards (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016).
  • Te Whāriki: New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum draws on Paley’s emphasis on children’s voices and storytelling, incorporating these elements into its holistic approach to learning (Ministry of Education, 2017).

These policy implementations have elevated the status of play and storytelling in early years education, although challenges remain in balancing these approaches with academic readiness pressures.

Ongoing Relevance for Professional Practice

Paley’s ideas continue to inform early years practice:

  • Story dictation and dramatisation: Many early years settings have adopted Paley’s storytelling and story acting approach. For instance, the ‘Helicopter Stories’ technique, developed by Trisha Lee (2015), is a direct application of Paley’s method used in numerous UK schools.
  • Inclusive classroom strategies: Paley’s emphasis on creating inclusive communities has inspired practices such as class meetings and collaborative problem-solving. The ‘You Can’t Say You Can’t Play’ rule, derived from Paley’s book of the same name, is implemented in many early years settings to promote inclusion (Paley, 1992).
  • Observation and documentation: Paley’s approach to observing and documenting children’s play and stories has influenced reflective practice in early years settings. The Learning Stories approach, popular in New Zealand and increasingly adopted globally, shares similarities with Paley’s narrative-based observation method (Carr & Lee, 2012).

These practices support children’s social-emotional development, language skills, and sense of belonging in early years settings.

Current Developments and Future Directions of Paley’s Work

While Paley’s legacy is significant, ongoing debates and developments continue:

  • Cultural responsiveness: Researchers are exploring how to adapt Paley’s storytelling approach to diverse cultural contexts. Cremin et al. (2018) have investigated the application of Paley’s methods in multicultural UK classrooms, highlighting the need for culturally responsive adaptations.
  • Technology integration: As digital technologies become more prevalent in early years settings, researchers are investigating how to integrate Paley’s storytelling approach with digital tools. Kucirkova (2019) has explored the use of digital storytelling apps inspired by Paley’s work.
  • Assessment and documentation: There is ongoing research into developing assessment tools that align with Paley’s play-based, narrative-centred approach. The Work Sampling System, developed by Meisels et al. (2019), incorporates elements of narrative assessment inspired by Paley’s work.

Future directions for research and practice include exploring the long-term impacts of Paley-inspired approaches, developing culturally responsive adaptations of her methods, and investigating how her ideas can inform responses to contemporary challenges in early childhood education, such as increasing academic pressures and the integration of technology.

Early years professionals and students are encouraged to engage critically with Paley’s ideas, contributing to the ongoing evolution of play-based, narrative-centred approaches in early childhood education.


Vivian Gussin Paley’s work has profoundly influenced early childhood education. Her key contributions include:

  • Storytelling and story acting: A powerful approach to promote language development, creativity, and social understanding.
  • Fantasy play: Recognised as crucial for cognitive and social-emotional development.
  • Inclusive classroom communities: Emphasising the importance of creating welcoming, supportive learning environments.

Paley’s research methods, rooted in careful observation and documentation of children’s play and stories, have provided valuable insights into how children learn and develop (Paley, 1990; 2004).

The practical implications of Paley’s ideas for early years professionals are significant:

  • Curriculum design: Incorporating storytelling and play-based learning into daily activities.
  • Classroom management: Using inclusive practices to create supportive learning environments.
  • Family engagement: Involving families in children’s storytelling and play experiences.

Implementing these strategies can enhance children’s language skills, social-emotional development, and overall well-being in early years settings (Cooper, 2009; Cremin et al., 2018).

While Paley’s work offers valuable insights, critical engagement is essential:

  • Consider contextual factors: Adapt Paley’s ideas to suit diverse cultural and socioeconomic contexts.
  • Integrate with other approaches: Combine Paley’s methods with complementary theories and practices.
  • Stay informed: Keep abreast of current research and debates in early childhood education.

Early years professionals are encouraged to view Paley’s work as a foundation for ongoing learning and reflection, rather than a rigid set of rules (Anning, 2004).

Early years practitioners and students are invited to:

  • Apply and adapt: Implement Paley’s ideas in your practice, tailoring them to your specific context.
  • Reflect and innovate: Share your experiences and insights with colleagues and the wider early years community.
  • Contribute to the field: Engage in research and professional development to build upon Paley’s legacy.

Paley’s emphasis on the power of play and storytelling continues to inspire and guide early years practice. Her work reminds us of the importance of listening to children’s voices and valuing their innate capacity for learning through play and narrative (Paley, 1992; Nicolopoulou et al., 2015).

Frequently Asked Questions

How Can I Implement Paley’s Storytelling Approach in a Large Class?

Implementing Paley’s storytelling approach in a large class requires careful planning and organisation:

  1. Create a storytelling schedule: Rotate through small groups of children each day for story dictation.
  2. Use peer storytelling: Pair children to share and act out stories with each other.
  3. Incorporate whole-class story acting: Choose one or two stories per week for the entire class to act out together.
  4. Utilise learning centres: Set up a dedicated storytelling area where children can work independently or in small groups.

Cooper (2009) found that even in large classes, regular storytelling sessions significantly improved children’s narrative skills and social interactions.

What Are the Benefits of Fantasy Play According to Paley?

Paley identified several key benefits of fantasy play:

  • Cognitive development: Enhances problem-solving skills and abstract thinking.
  • Social-emotional growth: Provides opportunities to explore relationships and emotions.
  • Language development: Expands vocabulary and improves narrative abilities.
  • Creativity: Encourages imaginative thinking and self-expression.

Paley (2004) observed that through fantasy play, children make sense of their world and develop crucial life skills.

How Does Paley’s Work Address Diversity and Inclusion?

Paley’s approach to diversity and inclusion focuses on creating a welcoming classroom community:

  1. “You can’t say you can’t play” rule: Promotes inclusion and prevents social exclusion.
  2. Valuing individual stories: Encourages children to share their unique experiences and perspectives.
  3. Collaborative storytelling: Fosters empathy and understanding among diverse groups.

Cremin et al. (2018) found that Paley’s methods, when adapted for multicultural contexts, promoted inclusive practices and cultural understanding.

What Is the Role of the Teacher in Paley’s Approach?

In Paley’s approach, the teacher’s role is multifaceted:

  • Observer: Carefully watch and document children’s play and stories.
  • Facilitator: Support children’s storytelling and dramatic play without dominating.
  • Narrator: Transcribe children’s stories accurately and respectfully.
  • Co-player: Participate in children’s play to extend learning opportunities.

Paley (1990) emphasised that teachers should be active listeners and gentle guides in children’s learning experiences.

How Does Paley’s Work Align with Current Early Years Curriculum Standards?

Paley’s work aligns with many current early years curriculum standards:

  1. Language and literacy: Storytelling supports oral language development and early writing skills.
  2. Social-emotional development: Inclusive practices and collaborative play foster positive relationships.
  3. Creative expression: Story acting encourages artistic and dramatic expression.
  4. Cognitive skills: Fantasy play promotes problem-solving and critical thinking.

The UK’s Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework incorporates elements that resonate with Paley’s approach, particularly in the areas of communication and language, and personal, social, and emotional development (Department for Education, 2021).

Can Paley’s Methods Be Used with Children with Special Educational Needs?

Paley’s methods can be adapted for children with special educational needs:

  • Visual supports: Use pictures or symbols to aid storytelling for children with language difficulties.
  • Sensory stories: Incorporate tactile elements for children with sensory processing needs.
  • Assisted technology: Utilise communication devices for non-verbal children to participate in storytelling.
  • Individualised approaches: Tailor the complexity of stories and roles to each child’s abilities.

Typadi and Hayon (2010) successfully adapted Paley’s storytelling approach for children with hearing impairments, demonstrating its flexibility.

How Can Parents Be Involved in Paley’s Storytelling Approach?

Parents can be involved in Paley’s storytelling approach in several ways:

  1. Home storytelling: Encourage parents to engage in storytelling activities at home.
  2. Story sharing: Invite parents to share cultural or family stories with the class.
  3. Story acting events: Organise family storytelling nights where parents participate in story acting.
  4. Documentation sharing: Regularly share children’s stories with parents to extend conversations at home.

Mardell and Abo-Zena (2010) found that involving families in storytelling activities strengthened home-school connections and supported children’s learning.

What Is Vivian Paley’s Philosophy?

Vivian Paley’s philosophy centres on several key principles:

  • Child-centred learning: Children are viewed as capable, curious learners who construct knowledge through play and social interaction.
  • Power of storytelling: Narrative is seen as a fundamental tool for learning, self-expression, and building community.
  • Importance of play: Fantasy play is considered crucial for cognitive, social, and emotional development.
  • Inclusive community: The classroom is envisioned as a democratic space where every child’s voice is valued and heard.
  • Observant teaching: Educators are encouraged to closely observe and document children’s play and stories to inform their practice.

Paley (1990) summarised her philosophy: “The classroom is a stage, and we are all players with important stories to tell” (p. 32). This approach emphasises the interconnectedness of play, storytelling, and learning in early childhood education.

Paley’s philosophy advocates for a learning environment that respects children’s natural inclinations towards play and storytelling, using these as powerful vehicles for learning and development. It challenges more structured, adult-directed approaches to early education, instead prioritising children’s own narratives and imaginative experiences (Paley, 2004; Cooper, 2009).


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Further Reading and Research

  • Cremin, T., Flewitt, R., Mardell, B., & Swann, J. (2017). Storytelling in early childhood: Enriching language, literacy and classroom culture. Language and Education, 31(4), 392-394.
  • Nicolopoulou, A., & Ilgaz, H. (2013). What do we know about pretend play and narrative development? A response to Lillard, Lerner, Hopkins, Dore, Smith, and Palmquist on “The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence”. American Journal of Play, 6(1), 55-81.
  • Wright, C., Diener, M. L., & Kemp, J. L. (2013). Storytelling dramas as a community building activity in an early childhood classroom. Early Childhood Education Journal, 41(3), 197-210.
  • The Alliance for Childhood:
    • This organisation provides resources and advocacy for play-based learning in early childhood education, including materials inspired by Paley’s work.
  • NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children):
    • Offers a wealth of resources for early childhood educators, including articles and webinars that often reference Paley’s approach.
  • The Storytelling and Story Acting Network:
    • This network, based in the UK, provides resources and support for implementing Paley’s storytelling and story acting approach in early years settings.
  • Harvard Graduate School of Education – Project Zero:
    • Project Zero conducts research on learning, thinking, and creativity in the arts and other disciplines, often drawing on Paley’s ideas.

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Kathy Brodie

Kathy Brodie is an Early Years Professional, Trainer and Author of multiple books on Early Years Education and Child Development. She is the founder of Early Years TV and the Early Years Summit.

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