The Power of Storytelling and Play

Vivian Gussin Paley has been a champion of “play” and the power of storytelling for many years.

“Paley found that listening to children, giving them the experience of being heard, and valuing their point of view fundamentally changed her. She learned that in order to teach, to be heard, she had to listen. Because she cared so deeply about what children were thinking and how their thinking developed, she invited, cultivated, and encouraged the children’s play. The more she did, the more benefits she reaped; the more articulate, creative and expressive the children became. Her collected works now show how her methodology of teaching through fostering pretend play can be repeated year after year with groups of children from diverse backgrounds, and lead to the same results —highly educated children.”  (Gil McNamee, 2005)

Vivian Gussin Paley sets the stage well for social problem-solving curriculum which includes storytelling, play, theatre, and scenarios which children feel and experience themselves:

“The crux of my writing and teaching for many years has been how children create a kind of society in their first classroom experiences. The preschool classroom is often children’s first opportunity to create a set of fair rules that they and their classmates abide by. As a teacher, I watched how children use dramatic play to figure out answers to all the big questions that humankind has been concerned with since the beginning of time—how to respond to loneliness, fear, power, weakness, justice, and fairness.

Children have a need to act out stories, to put their play onto a pretend stage so they can really listen to the characters and watch them speaking their own words—to see what works and what doesn’t work. Translating stories into theater also involves negotiation and other skills. If Jenny wants to be a sister but your story only has a brother, then children have to negotiate. Their negotiation requires empathy, taking into account the feelings of others. When children’s stories are dictated and acted out in the group, all members have a role—either as the storyteller, an actor, or the audience. When children see their story represented dramatically, they have an opportunity to say, “Yes, that’s what I mean.” It also provides children with plenty of time to discuss discrepancies between the true meaning of their story and what is being acted out, as well as other feelings that might be portrayed such as fear, loss, and friendship. Through storytelling and dramatic play, children and adults get to practice the skills of learning how to express ideas and how to listen to others.”

Through their play and storytelling, children make sense of the world and learn the most important rules of living in a democratic society—how to listen to one another and treat one another with fairness and kindness (University of Illinois, 2010).”

“The holistic nature of the storytelling curriculum is evident in the learning it promotes in almost all areas of development, from using language to express and shape intention to making friends.”  (Patricia Cooper, 2005)

Cooper, P. (2005). Literacy learning and pedagogical purpose in Vivian Paley’s ‘storytelling Curriculum.’ Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 5(3), 229-251. Retrieved February 28, 2015, from cooper&x=0&y=0&submit=yes&journal_set=specl&src=selected&andorexactfulltext=andMcNamee, G. (2005).
“The one who gathers children:” the work of Vivian Gussin Paley and current debates about how we educate young children. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 25(3), 275-296. Retrieved February 28, 2015.
University of Illinois, College of Education, Early Childhood and Parenting Collaborative. Interview with Vivian Paley. (2010, January 1). Retrieved February 28, 2015, from