“The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter” Analysis


Early childhood education is associated with the use of various teaching practices aimed at facilitating learners’ development and growth. Teaching is not confined to the acquisition of some academic skills because the attainment of social skills is equally important. In her famous book The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter, Vivian Gussin Paley reflects on her practice and shares her insights into the role play has in children’s learning. Although the book includes numerous valuable recommendations and methods, this paper dwells upon such strategies as observation, enabling children to lead, engaging children, and the creation of a safe environment. The paper is also concerned with the role of play in children’s progress.

Paley’s Practices


The discussion of the relevance of observation may seem ubiquitous to many educators. However, I believe this strategy is one of the key practices in education that informs teachers’ instruction, the choice of the methods to be used, and the assessment type. Falk (2018) notes that observation enables the teacher to identify the child’s needs, preferences, fears, strengths, and weaknesses. Paley (1991) shows that observations ensure effective scanning of students’ peculiarities as children are not interrupted and feel no pressure. The teacher pays attention to the learner’s habits, nonverbal cues, vocabulary, emotional state, and other areas.

It is possible to note that observation is the basis of students’ progress, growth, and learning. The teacher observes children when they play, complete tasks, interact with peers or adults and are involved in diverse activities. Based on this information, the teacher chooses the most appropriate methods of instruction and assessment. The educator also evaluates learners’ improvement when observing and makes decisions regarding their further strategy. Falk (2018) mentions several ways to conduct observations, including but not confined to making notes at the end of each day, having journals, keeping an electronic document, and other approaches. This formalization can help in further reflection, which is also critical for educators. Reviewing the notes is instrumental in checking children’s and the teacher’s advancement.

Enabling Children to Lead

By enabling children to lead, teachers can encourage them to be more active, learn new skills, and be more engaged. Paley (1991) provides various illustrations of the way this technique can be helpful in the classroom. For instance, the example of Sylvia, a girl being naughty, is eye-opening. Instead of trying to change the girl’s behavior, the educator observes her and other students’ actions. It turned out that this bad behavior became a part of a game and was shaped by children who considered the girl to be a naughty daughter. The daughter misbehaved (threw toys), was instructed to behave properly, and started acting decently. Paley (1991) states that if Sylvia behaved properly, the students would have to act out a naughty daughter to play their game.

This practice is of high importance for preschoolers’ growth, learning, and progress. Children who are allowed to lead their games feel empowered and relaxed. They explore their creativity and behave naturally, which is important for their comfort and the creation of the necessary atmosphere. Falk (2018) also states that children’s empowerment is important for their learning as they are in the right emotional state to acquire new skills. This practice is specifically important for the development of social skills as students try and learn different communication and behavioral models. Sylvia’s behavior is an example of the way this method works.

Creating a Safe Environment

The importance of the establishment of a safe environment has been mentioned above, but this practice deserves more attention. Paley (1991) stresses that children need to feel safe and relaxed to properly advance and grow in different aspects. For instance, Jason’s helicopter play and the area he occupied was the safe place he did not want to leave for a while (Paley, 1991). The teacher did not force the boy out of the area he spent most of his time or the play he was involved in. Jason felt safe and concentrated on his play, which enabled the educator to observe the learner effectively. One of the primary goals of a teacher is to expand the boundaries of every student’s safe zone (Falk, 2018). Jason’s involvement in other children’s play is an illustration of this practice.

The creation of a safe environment for children can be a complex process that implies the use of numerous strategies. Enabling children to lead is one of the possible methods to be utilized in this case. It is also possible to set some comfort zones based on certain activities, experienced emotions, tasks, and children’s preferences. Paley (1991) mentions that looking for and finding solutions is one of the effective ways to build a safe environment for learners. Clearly, the goal is to make the entire classroom and later a later community a safe zone for all students. Again, when students feel safe, they are open to new knowledge and skills, they are more willing to interact and share.

Engaging Children in Interaction

Students’ engagement in class or group activities is one of the most valuable techniques utilized by Paley (1991), who believes that the teacher needs to use any opportunity to make students involved. With Jason, the educator managed to engage the boy by listening to his stories and asking him to act out the story (Paley, 1991). It was clear that the boy was absolutely into his helicopter game, so he would be eager to expand his story, making others play it. Falk (2018) claims that children are often willing to share their stories and invite others into their games. Paley (1991) emphasizes that children create their worlds and live the lives of their characters, which helps them to feel safe. Learners’ engagement in some activities is instrumental in finding the most effective methods to make them active in other types of activity. These can be tasks related to the development of academic or social skills.

Paley’s Approach to Children’s Experiences

The book by Paley (1991) can be regarded as the reflection of an educator on the practices used in class. Some of the most noticeable approaches are observation, play, and encouragement. The teacher is trying to identify any changes in students’ behaviors, explore the strengths and weaknesses, as well as needs and desires. Learners have a considerable degree of freedom when playing and interacting. Children are free to tell their stories and encouraged to share these stories with the teacher. The educator encourages the child to involve others in acting out their stories, so the interaction of this group implies cocreation of the world, as well as the context. These interactions facilitate the creation of a safe environment that is necessary for children’s progress and growth.

Clearly, another important element of Paley’s (1991) approach is the focus on play. The experienced teacher entices students in games they invent or the educator has for them. Importantly, they are free to change the rules or some aspect of the game, which empowers students and makes them more engaged. In many cases, the teacher follows her students who lead various activities. Paley (1991) regularly stresses that play is one of the basic settings for the proper development of a child. Therefore, she encourages her students to play their games, tell their stories, and co-create their worlds. In many cases, encouragement can seem the most difficult task, but effective observation can equip an educator with the necessary tools. The central story of Paley’s book is about Jason, who was encouraged to participate in class activities through his focus on his helicopter (Paley, 1991). The teacher can always find the things that interest a learner to make the student more active in group activities.

The Relevance of Children’s Play for Early Childhood Instruction

Play is an important part of children’s lives and should be utilized in learning to its fullest potential. When playing, children explore the world and themselves, as well as learn to interact with others. Falk (2018) notes that play is of deep importance for preschoolers. With the help of play, children can take up roles and try different behavioral patterns. For example, Sylvia’s being naughty is an illustration of these attempts to choose roles and explore possible reactions other people can display (Paley, 1991). In this little play, the girl’s behavior is not shaped by a strict instruction of an adult or some type of punishment. The outcomes of her conduct are a part of the game, and she learns that every inappropriate behavior will lead to correction from some people. Hence, the world of play enables students to feel free and ready to experiment.

The educator observing such games should pay attention to every stakeholder’s actions, which can be used in the creation of effective instructions. Everything matters in this process, so the teacher should pay attention to the setting, words children utter, emotions they express, their nonverbal cues, and other details. The instructor may use some of these cues to make sure that Sylvia will understand the instructions and react accordingly.


To sum up, it is possible to note that play is central to children’s development and growth. Being a part of a student’s learning, play helps teachers to achieve numerous educational goals. First, play is a channel for new skills acquisition. When playing, children learn about the world around them, as well as gain academic and social skills. Be it literacy skills acquisition or science, children will be more motivated when the material is presented in the form of a game rather than an enumeration of facts and rules. More importantly, play is the basis for the establishment of a safe environment that facilitates children’s learning and progress. The teacher should not see play as a waste of time although educators often have quite tight deadlines to achieve certain academic goals. It can be difficult to balance standards, learning, and play, but teachers should remember that preschoolers see play as a way of exploration, self-exploration, experimentation, and self-realization. Hence, learners should have plenty of time to satisfy these needs to transfer safely to another educational and developmental level.


Falk, B. (2018). High-quality early learning for a changing world: What educators need to know and do. Teachers College Press.

Paley, V. G. (1991). The boy who would be a helicopter. Harvard University Press.

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