Connections and Constructions

If we traced the rich histories of play and beginning literacy as topics of study in the area of early childhood, we would see straight away that their paths have only recently crossed. Prior to the 1980s, studies of play in early childhood largely examined relationships between playing and children's cognitive development. The goal was to determine if certain processes of play, such as pretending, influenced specific mental processes, such as symbolic representation. Studies of beginning reading, on the other hand, pursued the identification of reading readiness factors, such as visual discrimination, that might support the “learning to read” process (Bond & Dykstra, 1997). What children gained from playing and what they needed for learning to read and write seemed distant cousins.

But in more recent times, the discovery that literacy develops before schooling and includes a lengthy emergent phase has turned attention squarely on the role of play in this process (e.g., Jacob, 1984). For nearly two decades now, researchers have described different facets of literacy-play links, with fruitful results. Several observations seem valid based on descriptive research and suggest that literacy and play are more closely related than once thought (see, e.g., Christie, 1994; Morrow & Rand, 1991; Neuman & Roskos, 1990, 1992, 1997; Pellegrini & Galda, 1993; Pellegrini, Galda, Dresden, & Cox, 1991; Roskos & Christie, 2000; Rowe, 1998):

  1. It is clear that young children naturally incorporate literacy activity into their play. Literacy, in other words, is not an unwanted intruder into play experiences. When playing grocery store, children spontaneously scribble shopping lists; playing “babies,” they readily pretend to read storybooks to their make-believe children. As the “stuff” of play, children bring what they know to their playing, which often includes the literacy practices they see in everyday life and playfully mimic. While these sorts of behaviors have been going on for a long time, it is only recently that we have begun to recognize them as evidence of emerging literacy.

  2. It's also quite clear that the amount of play children do with literacy is influenced by the physical and social environments in which they play. Play settings that richly offer children literacy-related ideas (e.g., playing post office), props (e.g., books), and tools (e.g., pencils) stimulate more reading and writing interactions than do play places that are less well provisioned. This is a robust finding reported by educators across countries and cultures (Campbell, 1998; Schroeder, 1996). From her work in Icelandic preschools, for example, Einarsdottir (2000) described the power of literacy resources and print visibility for enhancing children's literacy behaviors, interests, and knowledge.

    The social environment is also tremendously influential on literacy in play activity. Studies show, for example, the importance of adults' role in modeling and supporting literacy play. When adults facilitate literacy activity in the context of play, children respond warmly by following their lead and joining in reading and writing activity they might not otherwise have experienced.

  3. It's becoming clearer that in play and literacy, certain foundational mental processes may be shared. The mental work of letting something “stand for” or represent something else in play (e.g., “Let's pretend this rug is the beach, OK?”), for example, is akin to understanding that written words represent language. Likewise, the mental effort to build a pretend play story (“Let's pretend the baby's sick and we has to take care of it”) involves elements structurally similar to those found in comprehending and composing written stories. Opportunities to engage in quality play, therefore, may help strengthen these mental processes, thus building children's capacities to deal with the complex demands of printed texts.

At this historical juncture then, where literacy and play clearly cross paths, we can derive at least two strong inferences about the play-literacy relationship without stretching too far beyond the facts. One is that play makes sense as a curricular tool for teaching literacy in the early years. Play obviously presents an attractive opportunity for children to demonstrate what they know about reading and writing and to encounter new ideas about literacy.

As straightforward as this seems, however, incorporating play into the learning-to-read process faces some tough challenges. Traditional views of play as children's “business” and a “recess” from the mental work of difficult learning are pervasive and deep-seated. Parents, many teachers, and adults in general do not view play as a “real” opportunity for academic learning (such as learning to read and write) to occur -- even though, as I have observed, the play context can be enriched to provide such opportunity. To adjust this perception in favor of play as a genuine curricular tool in early literacy education will require considerable persuasion and explanation. How play connects to literacy needs to be widely broadcast in plain terms, and we need to work harder to provide evidence of the benefits of play for literacy development.

A second strong inference we can draw is the constructive power of language to build relationships between reading, writing, and playing. Language is the energy, so to speak, of the literacy-play link. It is the mental process that carries the connections between play activity and literacy activity. As fundamental to interaction, language sparks the organization of ideas, the narrating of events, and the naming of objects associated with literacy in the play setting. In play, children use language to realize their own purposes and potentials, but in so doing they also practice (a lot) the essential communication skills that underlie literacy -- telling, narrating, and describing. Rich, elaborated play demands rich, elaborated talk that gives rise to the dynamic use of language in ways that build the foundations of literacy processes and skills.

These two inferences lead us to a practical realization, I think, and that is the importance of creating conditions for language-filled play in literacy-rich classroom environments. While we know some about the critical features of these conditions -- such as time for play, access to print and literacy resources, and opportunity to engage in literate acts -- we need to learn more from research and from one another to realize the literacy potential of play. This involves not only systematic inquiry, but also discussing, thinking through, questioning, and sharing ideas with one another, often and thoughtfully, so as to expand our vision of what literacy teaching and learning in play can be.

In the next section I take up this matter in the format of what the Japanese term a koukai kenkyuu jugyou, or “public research lesson” (Lewis & Tsuchida, 1998). The research lesson is an actual classroom lesson, but it also embodies a particular goal or vision of education -- in our case, the play setting as a context for literacy teaching and learning in the early years. The purpose is to observe this goal brought to life in a real classroom, to critically discuss what we see, and to take away from this discussion new ideas and insights that deepen personal understanding.

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Reading Online,
Posted May 2000
© 2000 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232