Pioneers: Trevarthen and Paley

Estelle Martin
Wednesday, November 29, 2017

We take a look at the work and in uence of Colwyn Trevarthen and Vivian Gussin Paley, two current researchers whose observations have led to a greater understanding of play

Key points

  • The research by Trevarthen highlights the importance of practitioners understanding the relationships between learning through the senses, neuroscience, communication and interactions within meaningful relationships
  • The capabilities of young children are complex and the role of intersubjectivity in the developmental process is central
  • Paley’s pioneering work in creating a ‘narrative community’ is also underpinned by listening and observing young children’s unique abilities through the social processes of imaginative play, storytelling and drama

Note: This article was first published in the May 2008 issue of eye


This article looks at the work and influence of two key modern day thinkers. Professor Colwyn Trevarthen and Vivian Gussin Paley both continue to push for what is right for children, while making full use of observation and research.

Professor Colwyn Trevarthen

Colwyn Trevarthen is a New Zealander who was educated at the Universities of Auckland and Otago; where he initially trained as a biologist. He gained his PhD in Psychobiology (the science of the brain) at the California Institute of Technology – he worked with Roger Sperry on functions of the brain and cognition.

Trevarthen became a research fellow at the Centre for Cognitive studies at Harvard University at the invitation of Jerome Bruner in 1966. This is where his research with infants began and during the last three decades he has published widely to share his research on brain development, infant communication and learning, and emotional health in babies and young children.

Trevarthen has an honorary Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Crete, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a Member of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters; and a Vice-President of the British Association For Early Childhood Education. He is currently Professor (Emeritus) of Child Psychology and Psychobiology at the University of Edinburgh, where he has taught since 1971 – his current work involves movement languages in early childhood education.

Trevarthen continues to inspire early childhood professionals from a range of disciplines, including social care, education, health, and psychology through his research with infants and young children and their communication. He has observed and documented the importance of ‘intersubjectivity’ (or shared understanding) in the process of communications between babies and their carers.

It was Trevarthen who pioneered the technique of filming infants to capture intersubjectivity via the process of communication as an essential research technique technique to assist our understanding of how infants develop their strategies for communication and social awareness. His studies have revealed the competence of human babies in their ability to communicate their feelings, interests and understandings to the mother or carer.

Recent evidence from neuroscience research shows that babies have as many neurons as adults and that stimulation is necessary to form connections between them for growth and learning. This means babies are equipped to learn through their multi-sensory experiences.

The influential film, Play for Tomorrow (1992), features Trevarthen explaining the development and functions of the brain, with helpful visual examples of scans and graphics that assist us in literally seeing the activity of the thinking and learning brain in young children. is technology continues to assist researchers in understanding the processes of early development and learning.

The knowledge that young babies are learning through their interactions and relationships from birth is strongly evidenced in studies by Trevarthen and his colleagues. It is through these close and lively interactions, or ‘conversations’, that young children are facilitated to develop a sense of who they are and their sense of place and belonging (Trevarthen, 2003).

This process involves the giving and receiving of feedback, both verbal and non-verbal, which takes place through any social relationships the baby/infant is part of, and of which they influence. He showed, for example, that even two-month-old babies would initiate social interactions with adults.

It is these patterns of communication and styles of interaction that Trevarthen and his research associates were able to observe and identify, showing us that interpersonal aspects of communication are central to the process of child development and meaningful learning.

He emphasises the emotional and psychological processes present in supporting consciousness and thinking in the brain. Indeed, Trevarthen has contributed to our understanding of information that is relevant to practitioners who support young children who are unable to communicate through the lack of ‘innate intersubjectivity’, such as children who become identified with Autism.

Therefore, it is this interpersonal nature of communication that is underpinned by both culture, and a language that can be shared by the young child and mother/adult, as seen through in adult/child relationships and interactions. It is this shared social process that promotes emotional wellbeing and sound mental health in infants and children.

This concept is of central interest to Trevarthen. He regularly shares information about the parent/baby interactions through his publications, conference presentations and his research studies – including the language of ‘motherese’, a special form of vocalisation where the special rise of tone of voice and expression is musical and rhythmic; this engages the turn-taking seen by baby and adult.

This idea can be extended to include the language of ‘teacherese’, where the study of adult speech patterns (teachers), rhythms, tones of voice and expression influence the collaborative learning process. is is believed to enhance the child’s confidence in their own knowledge – this theory is known as ‘communicative musicality’ and was developed with musician Stephen Malloch. ‘Infants develop awareness, emotions and intentions in companionship with familiar and sympathetic persons months before they understand words, and they come to understand in words in the context of shared awareness and purposes before they produce any.’ (1995)

For Trevarthen, the child comes into the world needing to be part of their culture and is striving to comprehend this fascinating world, highly motivated to interact, and with the capacity for ‘protoconversational’ exchanges of expression with others in their desire to be part of social relationships and attachments. Trevarthen also includes play in his theory of intersubjectivity – he observed that children develop the ability to be intersubjective with their peers while in the process of play.

Links to contemporary early childhood education and care
Trevarthen’s research can be associated with findings from the national studies (EPPE and REPEY), the importance of ‘shared sustained thinking’ and the role of the educator working with babies and young children in the foundation stage. The Key Person system (Elfer, Goldschmied and Selleck, 2003) is an important part of current practices that establishes and maintains safe, loving and secure relationships, providing the continuity that empowers young children’s sense of self and belonging.

  • Practitioners can promote intersubjectivity through their interactions with babies and young children.
  • Observe closely to respond sensitively to the child’s physical and non-verbal gestures and communication.
  • Look at the whole child to interpret their language and intentions.
  • Babies are able to communicate through movement and musicality.
  • Reflect on the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation stage and Early Years Foundation Stage.

Many young children rely on gestures, and facial and body language, to initiate interaction and express their feelings. ese strands continue to be important in achieving successful social communication and emotional development and need to be developed alongside the necessary language. As a practitioner, consider how play can promote ‘intersubjectivity’ or shared understanding.

Vivian Gussin Paley

Paley was born and grew up in Chicago; she later graduated from the University of Chicago and became a kindergarten teacher working in various cities, such as New Orleans and New York. She returned to Chicago later in her career to teach at the Chicago Laboratory Schools. During this period she began to document more closely the observations she made of children and her reflections and learning from her own professional practice.

Overall, Paley has taught in kindergartens for over 37 years and continues today, lecturing and presenting around the world to audiences of early childhood practitioners advocating play, drama and imagination for and with children. She was awarded the John Dewey Society’s Outstanding Achievement Award in 2000, for her contribution and services to education.

The author of several books, her observations of the play of young children are inspirational and grounded in a deep knowledge of the children themselves. The books chart a social history in the classroom, encouraging the reader to reflect on the pedagogy at the time but also the attitudes, questions and understanding of the teacher. Her publications begin from the 1973 White Teacher, which continues to be significant – Paley’s contribution has always involved a reflective practice that concerns fairness and justice in how children are taught. is work has implications for all practitioners, specifically when they reflect on ’their attitudes to inclusion, race, ethnicity and towards diversity in all its forms.

This is reflected in all her books, along with themes about transition, fears, joys, moral dilemmas and such aspects as making rules in play. These are all themes present in children’s lives. In addition to this; the books contain Paley’s accounts of children’s narratives in the form of their dialogues, stories and role plays. These stories and accounts by the children bring their experiences alive.

Her books invite reflection and help us to focus on the ways we interact with children and how we educate our youngest children. Paley’s most recent book, A Child’s Work (2004), is about the importance of fantasy play in early years classrooms. Paley has established and developed storytelling and role-play/dramatic play techniques with children to encourage imagination and play-based learning.

Paley promotes play as a powerful vehicle for young children’s learning and the imaginative life of the child as central to aiding children’s thinking and holistic development. e story narratives she gives as examples document children’s powers of thinking, problem solving, ability to raise questions and working as team players; all through storytelling and play processes.

Paley has demonstrated the essential role of observation and advocated the essential need for becoming reflective practitioners so that we can inform and enhance experiences for the children we work with in our communities. Observation of children always involves listening to children, and their individual and collective voices can be represented through imaginative play stories and through acting.

Her work can help practitioners and researchers to work together in action research projects by a focus on observing and documenting this story making and imaginative play. is enables effective practitioners to:

  • Observe closely to include children’s narratives, dialogues, questions and, importantly, their answers.
  • Review how to document children’s dialogues and ideas, using a range of technologies.
  • Create opportunities for play across the curriculum for richer integration of imaginative play and storytelling and storymaking by the children.
  • Provide more opportunities to talk and listen to each other through play.
  • Use the themes that children are interested in for storytelling and imaginative play.
  • Share information with colleagues about what you have learnt from the children.

The development of acting-out the invented stories and the re-telling of known stories is part of Paley’s approach with children as young as three-years-old. A critique of this approach is that the story play may become too structured; although this is an area for continued debate, in theorising about play and socio-dramatic play, in particular. Reflect on your own setting; staff could review one of the books to consider Paley’s approach and its application to your community of practice with the children.

Vivian Gussin Paley is truly inspirational and shows her tremendous insight into the lives of the children she educated. The understanding she has of learning from the child to take forwards curriculum change and the capacity to create an inclusive environment for all the children through the vehicle of story narratives and play is exceptional.

The research by Trevarthen and his colleagues highlights the importance of practitioners understanding the relationships between learning through the senses, neuroscience, communication and interactions within meaningful intimate relationships. e capabilities of young children are complex and the role of intersubjectivity in the developmental process is central. Paley’s pioneering work in creating a ‘narrative community’ is also underpinned by listening and observing young children’s unique abilities and intersubjectivity through the social processes of imaginative play, storytelling and drama.

Reading list

Elfer P, Goldschmied E, Selleck D (2003) Key Persons in the Nursery: Building Relationships for Quality Provision. David Fulton: London

Trevarthen C (1995) e Child’s need to learn a culture in Children and Society 9(1) pp5-19

Trevarthen C, Aitken KJ (2001) Infant intersubjectivity: research, theory, and critical applications in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines. 42(1) pp3-48

Trevarthen C (2003) Infancy, mind in Gregory R (ed.) Oxford Companion to the Mind. Oxford Oxford University Press: Oxford

Paley VG (1973) White Teacher. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachussetts, USA

Paley VG (1990) e Boy Who Would Be Helicopter. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachussetts, USA

Paley VG (1992) You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachussetts, USA

Paley VG (2004) A Child’s Work: the Importance of Fantasy Play University Press of Chicago: Chicago, Illinois, USA

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