Vivian Gussin Paley: Helping our world through listening to children.


No one has been a better steward of our world than Vivan Gussin Paley, who left us on July 26, 2019.

As a very young teacher and mother, I discovered her work, beginning with Wally’s Stories.  Paley worked with young children, many of them challenged with emotional wounds from their home lives.  She spent her days deeply connected with her students, listening to their stories, and conveying the unfathomable respect she reaped as she helped them tell their stories and watched them heal and grow in community with one another.  As she shared their stories with us through her writing, Paley influenced a generation of educators.  I hope that her work will continue as you read this post and find her books.

Paley brought her kindergarten students into a circle each day, asking each child to tell their story.  As children spoke their story, they became directors of a play, including members of the class to act out the parts.  Stories, Paley discovered, not only engendered play and creativity, but actually spoke to the heart of children.  As we watch children play, we are often troubled by their conflicts with one another, and may seek to control conflict by the use of punishment.  But Paley saw that stories had healing powers.  Children were able to voice insightful thoughts as they enacted the stories and talked about the characters.

Later in my career I discovered her book,   You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.  Paley’s kindergarten students began a discussion about exclusive play, which Paley took to the upper grades at her school, examining the “right to choose” ones playmates in a school setting.  This book is a story about cultivating compassion and how compassionate inquiry can shape a school culture.

Paley showed us that the best way to create peace in our world is by gently watching and guiding children.  It’s not always easy to stay in a child’s space.  Children absorb the woes of the world.  Paley not only stayed with her students, she honored their wounds and their amazing capacity for transformation.  We need her message so much in our world today.


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