Phrases as play objects: Reflections on Vivian Paley and the Story Pirates (Part 1)

Who am I?  And what is this “I” capable of?

Who are WE?  And what is this “WE” capable of?

The process by which a child becomes conscious of her or himself and the limits on what she or he can do is deeply tied to that child’s growing understanding of where he or she stands within a social context, as well as what that child can or cannot accomplish in the presence or absence of other people.  For example, a three year-old can build a block tower, and can also knock it down when she wants to.  A three year-old and a four year-old can build a block tower together, and while the three year-old can knock it down when she wants to, that action might incite the opposite emotion in her play partner.  This development is culturally specific, heavily influenced by the value placed on individualistic or collectivistic notions of identity within the society in which that child grows up.  The “whole” in that part-whole relationship between the child and some entity might be a “whole” family, village, community or classroom.

In one of my blog posts from this past summer, I started to think more about children’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical development in relation to their favorite physical objects, the nature of their play with these objects and how that object play contributes to children’s individual and collective identity development at home and at school.  I borrowed from theorists in anthropology and social psychology (particularly Erik Erikson) to noodle a bit on how preschool and early elementary school-age children often perform rituals with objects to control randomness in their daily lives: the same story before bedtime, the insistence on wearing a superhero cape on each trip to the supermarket, or the seemingly-incessant repetition of a silly song learned from a favorite musical DVD.  (For example, I’m sure my parents rue the day that my sisters and I stumbled upon the Wee Sing collection of videos and the song “Make new friends / but keep the old / one is silver / and the other gold…” which looking back on it is a pretty messed-up song.  I mean, who wants to be a dull silver old friend when you can be a shiny new gold friend?  But I digress…)

I think my sisters and I broke the Guiness World Record for how many times that "Make new friends / but keep the old / one is silver / and the other gold" song has been sung in a row, and this VHS is to blame.

Sometimes these rituals are performed with physical objects – books, bath toys, costumes – and sometimes the object shared and ritualized is a word, phrase or song.  I am particularly interested in the way that children use storytelling as a form of community building/destruction/re-building and socialization – and the ways that digital and non-digital technologies can either support or suppress that storytelling.  The phrase “You’re not invited to my birthday party!” is a particular weapon in every child’s arsenal – whether it is yelled over a fight over Legos or some version of it is texted on a cell phone in ALL CAPS.   Stories are places for transactions, negotiations and currency trading.  The playwrights may be young children in a preschool classroom; adolescents inventing, forgetting and chronicling inside jokes; or adults re-Tweeting thoughts organized around a common hashtag.  Throughout the life span, these language markers can both draw lines dividing people and create group cohesion.

Now that this semester has ended – a rich and exciting time for willfully falling down research question rabbit holes – I’ve emerged with a whole pile of non-required reading and a new appreciation for reading without a deadline.  In particular, I’ve started to work my way through more writing by Vivian Paley, the brilliant former University of Chicago Lab School teacher and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient.  She has published prolifically on her observations, reflections and research on her own teaching practices.  Though she hasn’t been on any required reading list in my classes at Annenberg, Paley IS a communication scholar – studying the way young children communicate with other young children through storytelling and fantasy play.

Akin to Paley, I think another group of researchers, theorists and practitioners of child communication development are the Story Pirates, with whom I am very excited to collaborate in the coming year.  In the span of a week, I read Paley’s “The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter” and saw two Story Pirates shows in different environments – one small show in an elementary school auditorium in West Hollywood and one large-scale production at the Geffen Theatre at UCLA.

I believe that the Story Pirates are kin to Paley’s passionate legacy.  In my next post, I’ll scratch the surface on how Paley and the Story Pirates support children’s storytelling and playwriting – specifically as a form of object play – underscored by sensitivity to each child’s evolving developmental and cognitive needs.

2 responses to “Phrases as play objects: Reflections on Vivian Paley and the Story Pirates (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Phrases as play objects: Reflections on Vivian Paley and the Story Pirates (Part 1) | Packing for the journey

  2. Reblogged this on Packing for the journey and commented:
    Like Meryl Alper in this piece from her blog,, I too, like the way that Vivian Paley places the children, and their personal and shared stories, at the centre of their learning. After hearing her speak at a conference in Brisbane, Australia, in the early 1990’s I began to use her model of shared storytelling/storyacting, and story playing with each other, and objects to underpin my early education program. I quickly came to realise that allowing children to create their own stories (and there are many ways they can do this) established holistic underpinning individual and shared learning. As Meryl Alper says, of “community building/destruction/re-building and socialization… underscored by sensitivity to each child’s developmental and cognitive needs.”

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