Vivian Gussin Paley
January 25th 1929 – July 26th 2019
Vivian Gussin Paley, world-renowned author, pre-school and kindergarten teacher sadly died on the morning of Friday 26th July 2019. Vivian was 90 years old. She has been my dear friend, mentor and patron to MakeBelieve Arts for the past twenty years. It is to Vivian, and her generosity in sharing her knowledge and experiences with us at MakeBelieve Arts, that we owe all of our success in spreading Helicopter Stories throughout the UK.
During her time as a kindergarten teacher, Vivian Gussin Paley promoted the importance of listening to children’s stories and giving these centre stage in her classroom through an approach she called Storytelling and Story Acting. Vivian has written thirteen books about this approach and has received numerous awards. In 1987 she received the Erikson Institute Award for Service to Children, and she was named as Outstanding Educator by the National Council of Teachers of English in 2004.
Thanks to her curiosity, and the importance she placed on discovering what the world looked like for the children within her care, Vivian Gussin Paley developed an approach that truly values play as the work of childhood.
When I first met Vivian in 1999, I was immediately struck by how non-judgemental she was. How much she cared for the voices of the children she worked with. How she listened deeper and harder than anyone I had ever met.
Vivian believed that the greatest gift we can give to any child is the act of kindness and I, like many others who have been lucky enough to have spent time with her, have seen first-hand the respect she gave to every child she met.
When I last visited Vivian, two months ago, she asked me, ‘With all the changes that are happening in the world, with all the advances in technology, have things got any better for the children?’ It was a hard question to answer, and it summed up to me the importance Vivian still placed on making the world a better place for the youngest among us, even though she knew she was dying.
But what could I say? Almost one-third of children in the UK are living in poverty, and less than 50% of under 5s ever hear a bedtime story. Baseline testing is being piloted in many Reception classrooms and there is a growing push towards a more formal approach in the Early Years despite all the evidence to the contrary.
It was hard to respond.
But there was a positive, one that I was able to share with Vivian, one that I believe with all my heart.
So, I told her. There are still hundreds and thousands of us who work in the Early Years, who believe in the value of play, and that Vivian’s work and the work of others like her, gives us the power to fight what we know is wrong. I told her that for the children who regularly have access to Storytelling and Story Acting, or Helicopter Stories, I believe things do change for the better. For Vivian’s approach means these children are valued, listened to, and nurtured and as a result their stories and their confidence grow.
The greatest gift we can give to children is the kindness of listening to their words and showing them how important they are to us. Knowing about this gift is the most amazing thing Vivian Gussin Paley handed to me, and it is this gift that I will do my best to share for as long as I can, so that all teachers, early childhood practitioners, parents and childminders have the opportunity to take part in listening to the stories of their children, writing them down and experiencing the joy of acting them out.
To my dear friend Vivian, today the world feels emptier without you.
You will not be forgotten.