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

In my previous post, I wrote about the associations between the social and cultural context in which children learn about storytelling, and children’s individual and collective relationships with objects that become props for their stories (e.g. physical objects for trading and sharing; sounds and words as objects with a social currency or cultural cache).

As a follow up, I’d like to highlight the work of University of Chicago Laboratory School kindergarten teacher and MacArthur Genius Grant winner Vivian Paley, as well as non-profit arts and literacy organization the Story Pirates (currently partnered with the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles).  These teacher-artist-researchers support children’s storytelling and playwriting as a form of object play with words and other literacy materials.

In highlighting sections of Paley’s book The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter (1991) and my own observations from recent Story Pirates performances, I hope to draw some connections between their innovative approaches to honoring children’s agency as playwrights, and the ways that those approaches are underscored by sensitivity to each child’s evolving developmental, physical, behavioral and cognitive needs.

Every child’s need is a special need

Special rights must, under US law, be extended to children with disabilities in order to support their equal rights to participate as citizens along with their typically developing peers.  New mobile, lightweight and inexpensive digital technologies for facilitating participation and communication are increasingly developed and produced for children with physical and cognitive disabilities.  Such technologies include a range of apps geared towards children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other forms of augmentative and assistive communication apps (AAC).

However, this hardware and software does not necessarily meet children’s need for social communication around narratives and interaction through storytelling (be it peer-peer, child-adult or sibling-sibling).  Preconceived notions of children with physical and intellectual challenges’ “limited” capacity for communication shortchanges the possibilities for their rich engagement with storytelling.  These notions around “deficits” as opposed to “assets” also reciprocally circumscribes the power of storytelling to potentially motivate therapy practices (e.g. a child with cerebral palsy using AAC to tell a story, the desire to express a narrative also pushing them forward in practicing a range of motion and motor control.)

This discrepancy is yet another component of the digital divide or divides – blowing asunder the singular notion that all children are “natives” when it comes to their comfort and dexterity with digital technology (when compared to adults.)  But by noticing the media creation, consumption and distribution by children with disabilities, we are forced to ask difficult questions about which children are afforded the means of expression for storytelling with media (and which children’s families can afford these means), using what digital or non-digital technology and where that child is situated within a cultural environment and geographic location.  The questions are difficult to ask, and even more challenging to answer.

Phrases planting and taking root: The seeds of storytelling in Vivian Paley’s classroom

The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter is a wise and humble account of Paley and her assistant teachers’ challenging yearlong experience in integrating isolated children within the classroom, and by extension, the community.  The book focuses primarily on one such child: Jason, the titular boy who would prefer to be a helicopter and do helicopter things for every moment of the school day.  Though no diagnosis is made explicitly clear (and left purposefully unlabeled by Paley), Jason exhibits many behaviors of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), such as lack of interest in sharing enjoyment with other children, preoccupation with a specific part of a toy (in Jason’s case, the helicopter blades), and difficulty initiating conversation.

Storytelling, Paley describes, is the “academic inheritor of the creative wisdom of play” (p. 35).  Particularly for children having difficulty making friends, story creation and storytelling can create a liberating space for all children to experiment with their emotions and feelings.  She writes, “Playwriting need not involve reciprocity and can therefore sidestep personal issues for a while.  Story and stage provide a laboratory for every sort of child: those who are sociable but not articulate and those who speak better than they play; those who are trapped in a single theme and those who scurry quickly along the edges of too many” (p. 34-35).

While Paley is the storyteller of The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter, in the classroom she is story facilitator – helping children document their narratives (whose structure and themes grow increasingly complex over the year) and perform these stories with their fellow classmates as actors (while the playwright also directs.)  Paley notes the evolution of her approach to helping children in this way in the classroom, her early teaching philosophy being limited to:

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

then shifting to

Let me study your play and figure out how play helps you solve your problems.  Play contains your questions, and I must know what questions you are asking before mine will be useful.

and eventually landing on…

 Put your play into formal narratives, and I will help you and your classmates listen to one another. In this way you will build a literature of images and themes, of beginnings and endings, of references and allusions.  You must invent your own literature if you are to connect your ideas to the ideas of others (all p. 18).

Paley sets the stage for playing with story/stories as play within her classroom space.  The children’s dictation to her is not covert or hidden – banished to a special “story corner” – but is part of the social fabric of the classroom, located at a large table in a prime spot in classroom.  “Stories are not private affairs,” writes Paley.  “The individual imagination plays host to all the stimulation in the environment and causes ripples of ideas to encircle the listeners” (p. 21).

Jason’s difficulty in interpreting social cues often leads to his interruption of his classmates’ dictation and story performances.  However, Paley frames Jason’s interruptions as additive: “In storytelling, as in play, the social interactions we call interruptions usually improve the narrative.  Yet I can recall a time when I would say ‘Please don’t interrupt.  Let people tell their own stories.’  That was when I missed the main point of storytelling.  I did not understand it to be a shared process, a primary cultural institution, the social art of language” (p. 23).  Paley shifts her notions of what “classroom participation” means so that it does not exclude the form of Jason’s participation.  What good is any pedagogical theory if it does not account for outliers?

Paley’s story “intake” process with the children models free expression and critical inquiry for her students.  Her patience and determination is evident in her repeating of each sentence the storyteller says in order to give them the opportunity to correct errors or edit.  Not everything we adults write the first time is what we want to express in our final version, but we have more experience than children with wielding the power to change our minds and practice exerting control without having to be asked or given explicit permission.  Paley questions any aspect of her students’ stories she might misinterpret, for the classmate-actors will need clear instructions for performing them, and the story must be coherent to the audience and narrator as well.

I thought these quotes from Paley on modeling critical inquiry for her students were particularly rich:

“The children learn that figuring out what we do and say and read and play are equally important.  Everything is supposed to make sense; if it doesn’t, ask questions, go over it again, find out why the picture is blurred.  The range of possibilities for misunderstandings is quite astonishing.  And is this not a lucky circumstance?  It means we ought never to run out of great curriculum materials, free for the asking.  We only need to listen for our own errors and there is enough text to fill the school year” (p. 48-49).

Basically, questions = free school supplies!  YES! And…

“We can never fully discover the essential issues for each child or set up the perfectly safe environment.  What we do is continually demonstrate the process of searching for solutions.  This is the point at which studying becomes teaching” (p. 57).

This is also the point in which everyone in the classroom – child and adult – becomes a student, teacher, researcher and artist.

The overlap of popular culture and “pure” classroom culture

In Paley’s classroom, children are not chastised for bringing popular culture into their play and narratives.  The distinction between classroom culture and popular culture is by definition vague.  The children in any group decide for themselves the social norms for children “copying” material from other children, or other texts (books, games, TV shows).

Regarding pop culture in the child’s classroom, Paley writes, “There is a tendency to look upon the noisy, repetitious fantasies of children as non-educational, but helicopters and kittens and superhero capes and Barbie dolls are storytelling aids and conversational tools.  Without them, the range of what we listen to and talk about is arbitrarily circumscribed by the adult point of view” (p. 39).  There is a pleasure in a shared notion of texts outside the classroom, of children borrowing lines from the books many have all read before bedtime in their respective homes.  Of this material, Paley writes, “These verbatim bits of book dialogue bring a group closer together.  The children understand that an appropriately used phrase from a favorite book has the power to release pleasurable memories of a special world held in common.  Furthermore, the question of appropriateness is for the group to decide by its own usage” (p. 44).

In Paley’s account, a key moment in Jason’s social development is when he beings to borrow recurring phrases that children in the classroom use in their stories within his own fantasy play and narratives.  “Every year,” she writes, “certain phrases are planted and take root, the shoots continually coming up in stories and in play […] The use of a communal symbol is as tangible a demonstration of socialization as the agreement to share blocks and dolls” (p. 40).  Paley may notice and express her noticing to her children, but she cannot artificially manufacture those “verbal banners” strung from the ceiling, mingling with the sounds of classroom conversation.

‘Theory of mind’ in the spotlight: Story Pirates and the staging of children’s dramas and comedies

Regarding Jason’s success at using of one of these “verbal banners,” Paley writes, “A child who listens and responds to another child’s story may indeed be ready to tell his own to the group” (p. 38).  These social nuances of storytelling seem very relevant to what is known in psychology as theory of mind, or the ability to understand both that oneself holds a wide range of things in the brain (like emotions, feelings, thoughts and beliefs), and also that other people have this same range of things, but that those person’s brain contents are distinct from ones’ own.

“Everyone thinks, but not everyone thinks like me” is a concept that children with autism spectrum disorders have trouble understanding and acting on.  Since actors have to toggle between their own thoughts and the thoughts of their audience, theory of mind is central to storytelling and performance.

(PS Did you know that there is an International Society for the Study of Narrative, and that there is a whole branch of research on Cognitive Narratology?).  Cognitive narratology encompasses the “mind-relevant” aspects of storytelling (though, does that isolate it from “body-relevant” aspects?  Or “machine-relevant” aspects of storytelling, like with computers and robots?).  Just based on a Google Scholar search, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of research on “cognitive narratology” and “children” and “autism”…

The importance of theory of mind, in a child relating to an audience as a storyteller, is evident in Jason’s story, as well as in recent observations I made at Story Pirates shows.

Paley writes, “Two friends alone will memorize each other’s stories and learn a private language.  But the storyteller is a culture builder, requiring the participation of an audience.  Play is not enough [emphasis added]; there must be a format that captures the essence of play while attaching to it a greater degree of objectivity.  Storytelling and story acting can perform the task” (p. 34).  The Story Pirates have honed this format though their school creative writing workshops and subsequent new story shows when they return to those schools a few weeks later.

The group is keenly aware of this distinction between storytelling, play and playwriting.  “When storytelling becomes playwriting,” writes Paley, “children are even more sensitive to the preferences of others” (p. 24).  I saw this sensitivity in the children sitting next to and in the rows surrounding the child whose story was being performed for the first time in a recent Story Pirates performance in their school auditorium.  As the performance began to take shape, a number of the non-author children were engaged in watching the Story Pirates’ live performance, and also simultaneously asking questions related to the story to their classmate the playwright.  They asked for live-DVD special feature-type running commentary of their classmate-playwright: “Did you name that dog?” “How did you come up with that part?” “Who is HE supposed to be?”  These children, whose stories the Story Pirates did not select to perform, were so so so happy for the Story Pirates announced the name of the child whose story they would be performing.  Not one child displayed jealousy or envy – just effusive glee.  Though teachers fear hurt feelings, it is what adults have learned to do, whereas most children do not know to go there first.  But they do know to ask of their friend, “Why does that princess have monster hands?”

Another moment during a Story Pirates show that made me think about empathy and theory of mind took place during their show Brillance!.  The smart and silly musical is based on the life of Marie Curie, and was created as a companion piece to Alan Alda’s Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie, which opened at the Geffen Playhouse on Nov. 1.  At one point in Brilliance!, the cast invited three young audience participants to act out the roles of an electron, proton and neutron.  The proton, as a positive charge, was supposed to act happy.  The child got a practice run, before the real deal, in pretending to be happy when there’s stuff going on on stage that might make you feel sad.

On one side of the child, one of the actors told a sorta sad story about a dog dropping an ice cream cone and getting pistachio nuts stuck in their nose.  Upon hearing the increasingly sad story, an actor on the other side of the child would ask the child how they felt.  To really play the proton, the child was encouraged prior to the dog story to keep saying that they felt fine/happy/good when asked how they felt.  The person asking “How do you feel?” also asked the question with a sad tone.

Zoe Jarman of Story Pirates as Marie Curie in Brilliance!

The interesting thing happened when the child on stage, a boy probably around six years old, upon being asked “How do you feel?” responded “Sad.”  There was a little bit of confusion on stage, as the boy had gone a bit off script, and the boy started to feel not just pretend sad, but real sad, and turned to his sister (on stage playing the electron) for a hug and a place to hide.

I think, besides a bit of stage fright, part of the boy’s difficulty may have been due to his age and his development of interpretative theory of mind (iToM).  That is, the recognition that two people can hold different real beliefs about the same event or provocation.  Without iToM, a child cannot appreciate that both alternate interpretations – ‘This same story makes you feel sad’ and ‘This story same makes me feel happy’ are both valid and true.

It seems there is something to the role of iToM specifically in storytelling – in being able to understand rules of reciprocity, and of knowing that using the phrase that gets repeated in stories by one’s classmates (perhaps symbolizing someone in your class who originated the phrase) is like a tribute to them, and makes them like you.

The event on stage during Brilliance! was almost like a task used to measure iToM.  Traditional tasks for measuring ToM include the “Sally-Anne” task for false beliefs, regarding swapped contents in closed containers or location changes.  A child may pass ToM tasks but fail iToM tasks (Carpendale & Chandler, 1996; Chandler & Lalonde, 1996; Myers & Liben, 2011).  These tasks for measuring iToM include divergent conflict narratives, ambiguous figures tasks, and droodle tasks.  (Yes, DROODLES – like a doodle, drawing, and a riddle.)


Children with autism spectrum disorder often have difficulty engaging in pretend play.  One of the most important benefits of children with ASD engaging in storytelling activities may be the gaining of an understanding of the exchange of symbolic phrases – of gifting someone a story that acknowledges their contribution in your social space.  The implied but not explicit meanings in humor are challenging for these children to communicate, but not impossible to understand.  Paley cautions the over-labeling of children with learning disabilities (e.g. as “fast” and “slow” children).  “None of these labels apply in a classroom that sees children as storytellers,” she writes.  “These labels don’t describe the imagination.  A storyteller is always in the strongest position; to be known by his or her stories puts the child in the most favorable light” (p. 54).

We can choose to take a deficit view of children like Jason: “A boy who would be a helicopter cannot be expected to spin his blades in the same way as, let’s say, someone who invents trapdoors and magic keys.  Traps and keys capture and release people; rotating blades usually keep people away” (p. 50).  Or we can celebrate Jason’s assets: “A boy who would be a helicopter enters society in full control of his vehicle” (p. 65).

Lingering questions

Children are not explicitly taught how to sit, crawl or walk – nor how to fantasize.  Is fantasizing inherently human?  Based on evolutionary psychology, how have we evolved for fantasy to make us more suited for survival?

Thinking about that boy on stage at Brilliance!… Is there a difference in how children learn to cope with the anticipation of fear and the fear itself?

How often do we as teachers or parents either consciously or unconsciously “implant” the lesson?  Pretending that an idea has come from a child when it has not, and while the child may go with it, their hesitation may derive from knowing that the adult has chosen to see something that is not really there.


Carpendale, J. I. M., & Chandler, M. J. (1996). On the distinction between false belief understanding and subscribing to an interpretive theory of mind. Child Development, 67, 1686-1706.

Chandler, M. J., & Lalonde, C. E. (1996). Shifting to an interpretive theory of mind: 5- to 7-year olds’ changing conceptions of mental life. In A. Sameroff & M. Haith. The five to seven year shift: The age of reason and responsibility (pp. 111-139). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Myers, L. J. & Liben, L. S. (2011). Graphic symbols as “the mind on paper”: Links between children’s interpretive theory of mind and symbol understanding. Child Development, 00.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s