Wally’s Stories: Conversations in the Kindergarten
by Vivian Gussin Paley

Review by Linda Pound

Throughout her working life Linda Pound committed herself to improving the quality of provision for young children and families. She has worked in three universities and as an LEA inspector in London.

Book No: 2 – 1st published: 1981

The adult should not underestimate the young child’s tendency to revert to earlier thinking: new concepts have not been ‘learned’ but are only in temporary custody.  They are glimpsed and tried out but are not permanent possessions.

Although Wally’s Stories was not the first that Vivian Gussin Paley wrote, this was the first of her books that I read. Now almost forty years later, it is still the book I wish I had written.  Her capacity to not merely listen but to work at really understanding each child’s thinking shines through. Early in the book she writes: ‘you can write a book about thinking – by recording the conversations, stories and playacting.’  In fact she has written many such books, each without overt reference to theory, though this remains my favourite.

Paley’s curriculum is firmly based on the events confronting children in her kindergarten class on a day to day basis and on the stories they dictate and then act out in her classroom. She transcribes children’s conversations at the end of each day, so that she can reflect on how best to help them shape their conversations and how ‘to keep the inquiry open long enough for the consequences of their ideas to become apparent to them.’ She ends the book by outlining the silent pact she has made with the children. Using their play, their Storytelling and their Story Acting she promises…

‘If you will keep trying to explain yourselves, I will keep showing you how to think about the problems you need to solve.

My introduction to Wally’s Stories came about as part of a language course but I soon discovered that many of the scenarios described are full of insights into the way in which children come to understand mathematical concepts. Rulers are said to be not real – rugs can be more reliably measured with ‘ten rulers and two dolls,’ or even better with Warren who is described as longer, but off sick on the day in question.  Paley’s patient questioning and introduction of ideas such as using a tape measure or reusing the rulers are tolerated but ultimately rejected – the latter as the children ruefully point out – ‘Now you made another empty space.’

Other episodes deal with what Paley terms ‘numerical confusion.’ In one episode she describes taping numerals 1 to 22 to the top of the piano. The idea was that each child would bring an apple and Paley would attempt to draw from this opportunities to learn about computation. Five apples (numbers 1 to 5) on the piano – but a squirrel steals numbers two and three – most children are confident that there are three apples left. However as the numbers get larger children become less sure – and once over ten their responses appeared to be random: ‘they forgot their most dependable math skill, counting, because the printed numbers blocked this natural instinct.’

A host of interesting mathematical opportunities arise on Fridays when children each bring 25 cents and then a group of them plan, shop, prepare and serve lunch for the whole class. There are of course rich opportunities but in this account, Paley focuses on the issues that arise over giving change. She had produced a chart with each child’s name and as they brought their 25 cents, the money was taped beside their name. When one child brings a dollar and needs 75 cents change, confusion reigns. Paley attempts to tape a dollar beside four children’s names, she tries collecting coins in a jar and although children ‘had memorized the equation: four quarters equal one dollar,’ as with the rulers, they remain unconvinced.

She writes about the fact that children in her class apparently believe that they are actually taller on their birthday than on the day before. She could choose to measure them on the two days in question.

The trouble is that children do not confer legitimacy on the ruler. We can insist that the children repeat our ‘fact’ – this brings them our approval – but we cannot force-feed a concept before there is trust in the premise.

Temporary custody’ of concepts is not limited to mathematics – but encompasses social, cultural and linguistic issues. Paley maintains that her focus on ‘logical thinking and precise speech,’ starting with children’s magical solutions and fantasy is what will best prepare them for formal schooling.