By Rebecca McMahon Giles
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One noted and significant benefit of play is its contribution to children’s acquisition of language. Time spent playing provides valuable opportunities for learning about words through speaking and listening, which creates and builds on much of the same knowledge needed for word recognition and comprehension. When playing with print, children use their oral language knowledge and apply it to text. With appropriate materials and supportive adults, young children can engage in meaningful reading and writing experiences through play, making new discoveries about print that contributes to their becoming authors.
The dramatic play center, traditionally known as the housekeeping or home center, allows children to enact ideas and experiment with props as they dramatize familiar roles. Cognitive and social development are enhanced in this setting, which encourages cooperation, requires peer interaction, fosters perspective taking, and stretches the imagination through pretending. Children apply their knowledge of language, numbers and print in real life situations as they recreate scenes and participate in role play related to well-known situations, such as cooking dinner or going to the grocery store.
Symbolic play, in particular, has been associated with language learning. Symbolic play, also known as pretending, occurs when children mentally allow one object to represent another. For example, a child holds a block to her ear and has a one-sided conversation with her grandmother. In this example, the block has become a symbol for a cellphone. A child’s pretending is an expression of abstract thought that evidences a beginning ability to use symbols.
Pretending an object has a different meaning is an important step in mastering the concept of symbolic representation that is necessary for reading and writing. All three activities—pretending, reading and writing—require the ability to use objects (or pictures of them), words and mental images to stand for actual items, events or actions (see Figure 1).
When appropriate props are available, play becomes a rich resource for literacy learning. Converting the housekeeping center’s traditional home setting into another interesting locale increases the opportunities for language and literacy development. Unique settings and experiences for dramatic play can be introduced through field trips, guest speakers and quality children’s literature.
Playing with familiar objects or acting out a common theme may limit the potential for using new vocabulary, but children try out different words and expressions when they interact with unusual props and take on diverse roles. Engaging in pretend play in novel scenarios:
Begin with realistic props that help children maintain their roles by remembering what the theme is about, such as wearing a plastic hard hat when pretending to be a construction worker. Gradually, provide fewer realistic props supplemented with open-ended props and unstructured materials, to increase children’s symbolic representations as they use props more imaginatively (See Figure 2).
Children’s writing development is fully supported in developmentally appropriate ways when the environment is used as a vehicle for learning. Labeling dramatic play props and the actions that accompany them prompts children to use these words in verbally communicating their thoughts and ideas during play (Bodrova & Leong, 2003) and contributes to use of the labels as a reference for writing (Neuman & Roskos, 1990; Tunks & Giles, 2007).
Similarly, incorporating themed literacy materials into play settings, such as printed menus and order pads for a restaurant, can be beneficial to preschoolers’ literacy development. Integrating literacy props in play is most favorable when the props are explicitly explained and direct connections are made between literacy-enriched play centers and other parts of the curriculum, such as read-alouds (Christie & Roskos, 2013). These actions by adults increase children’s ability to use the materials independentlyand make it more likely that they will use play as a means to develop literacy skills.
Publishing opportunities during dramatic play include taking orders, making appointments, jotting notes and writing prescriptions. Integrating writing materials into the dramatic play center allows children to playfully practice the act of writing in settings free of pressure and predetermined expectations. Placing message pads by the office phone, recipe cards in the kitchen, and patient records in the doctor’s office fosters children’s writing abilities by providing suitable opportunities to develop new skills and increased understanding.
Dramatic play builds children’s writing skills through opportunities to:
A carefully prepared environment, coupled with encouragement and modeling, changes visual exposure to print into meaningful interaction with it. Young children’s interest in writing during their early stages of exploratory scribbling and deciphering alphabetic principles can be nurtured by encouraging children to talk about their play. These conversations can serve as the impetus for written communication (Tunks & Giles, 2007). Whenever possible, teachers should show children how the words used orally look when written, by assisting them in composing messages, leaving notes or creating signs to inform others about their play. This assistance spans from offering encouragement to serving as scribe and should always ensure that activities remain self-initiated and child-directed. Teachers’ unobtrusive support of children’s writing abilities during play extends their knowledge of print and encourages their view of themselves as authors.
Bodrova, E., & Leong, D.J. (2003). Building language & literacy through PLAY. Early Childhood Today, 18(2), 34.
Christie, J.F., & Roskos, K.A. (2013). Play’s potential in early literacy development.
Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development, 1-4. Retrieved from http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/sites/default/files/textes-experts/en/774/plays-potential-in-early-literacy-development.pdf
Neuman, S.B., & Roskos, K. (1990). Play, print and purpose: Enriching play environments for literacy development. The Reading Teacher, 44(3), 214-221.
Tunks, K.W. & Giles, R.M. (2007). Write Now! Publishing with Young Authors, Prekindergarten through Second Grade. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Understanding the Relationship Between Play and Literacy
Play, as a fundamental cognitive activity, is preparation for more complex cognitive activities, such as reading and writing.
Representational abilities acquired when pretending (“this stands for that”) transfer to written language.
When children are offered play experiences with print-related materials,
they act in literate ways.
Types of Props
Realistic – actual objects
Example: apron and plastic plates
Symbolic – using an object in place of something else
Example: drum mallet for a microphone and side-by-side chairs for a car
Open-ended – unstructured and multi-functional items
Example: cardboard boxes and pieces of cloth
Rebecca McMahon Giles, Ph.D., is professor of elementary and early childhood Education at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. Her book, “A Writer’s World: Creating Classrooms Where Authors Abound” will be available from Exchange in the coming year.