Playing to Learn

Understand and promote high-level, language-building play.

Nov 06, 2012



Playing to Learn

Nov 06, 2012

Five-year-old Marcia is playing school with her 3-year-old sister, Tania. "Our animals can be the students," she says as she points to a row of stuffed animals on the floor. "I want to be in the class," says Tania. Marcia pauses seriously and then moves one of the animals. "You can sit here. Hold up your hand when you want to ask me a question. Now, children," continues Marcia, using a "teacher" voice, "We are going to read this book. Who is the author? Who is the illustrator? 'Brown bear, brown bear,'" she chants, "'What do you see?'" Tania raises her hand "Teacher," she says, "I see you."

This is a perfect example of high-quality, imaginative play. Not only are the girls enjoying themselves, but their planning, role-playing, and verbal interaction are helping to build skills they will need for successful academic learning.

With growing academic expectations being placed on young children each year, it's easy to forget how critical play is to their social, emotional, and cognitive growth. In fact, research has shown that playtime provides experiences that promote the underlying skills necessary for your child's learning in school and beyond, such as improved memory, oral-language ability, and deeper engagement in literacy activities.

But not all play is created equal. Many behaviors — from movement games like tag to building a city with blocks — constitute play. However, "mature" or "high-level" play, involving sustained pretend scenarios, multiple roles, and symbolic use of props, contributes to foundational skills and literacy development. By 4 years old, children are capable of engaging in mature play. Unfortunately, many preschool and kindergarten children play at a toddler level, staying in the same role and repeating the same actions. Studies have found that children who play at a lower level are not likely to use play opportunities to expand their language skills or to engage in pretend reading or writing.

You can help promote higher-level play by creating an environment that encourages pretend play and by supporting — not directing — your child's play efforts. Just as children who are raised in print-rich homes — where reading is treated as part of family life — have stronger reading-readiness skills, children raised in a "play-rich" environment will develop stronger overall learning skills.

Creating a play-rich home doesn't mean that you have to live with block structures in a bathtub or a fort in the middle of the garage. It simply means that you make available toys and props for your child to play with in many different places and that you look for opportunities that lend themselves to "play scenarios." For example, if you are cooking, help your child create a play kitchen: a carton on its side for the oven, a shoebox for a baking dish, blocks for food, pieces of cardboard for plates. Incorporating elements of pretend play into activities and routines throughout the day helps your child exercise his creativity and build his language skills.

Helping Your Child Plan Play

The best way to help your child play at a higher level is to provide all necessary assistance at the preparatory stages, before he goes into the playhouse or opens his boxes of blocks.

Make sure that your child has a long, uninterrupted block of time reserved for pretend play. Children need time to plan their play, to negotiate roles with each other, to choose or make props, and finally, to carry out their play ideas. On average, it takes from 30 minutes to an hour for young children to develop and act out a good play scenario. If possible, preserve the play setting created by your child so that she can continue playing the same theme tomorrow.

Higher-level play entails planning. When your child plans her scenarios she gets great practice using language, as she must find the words to discuss the scenario and to make the roles, props, and actions clear to other players. Encourage your child to plan their play first orally and later using drawing and writing.

In addition to having an overall effect on the quality and duration of play, learning to use appropriate strategies in play supports the development of self-regulation — a universal pre-requisite for any academic learning. For children, self-regulation means being able to regulate their thinking and their emotions. Instead of just blurting out the first thing they think of, they consider several possibilities. Rather than get mad when it is "not my turn," a child thinks, "It will be my turn next." When your child negotiates his role or corrects a playmate whose actions do not fit the role he is playing, he learns how to delay gratification and take necessary actions for sustaining play.

Because of its open-ended nature, this kind of play often causes more arguments and fights among children than other activities. If, when playing hospital, a child tugs on another's play stethoscope, it's not that he's necessarily being aggressive, but rather that he doesn't know what to do with the prop. When she becomes aware of the different roles involved in a play theme, of what each person does and how they interact with each other, she will be less likely to argue and fight. 

Provide the Proper Props

Realistic props are useful for introducing very young children to pretend play, because the props help them stay in their roles and remember what the play scenario is all about. So when children are playing grocery store, for example, the checker wears an apron and works at a realistic cash register. However, after your child has some experience with this type of play, start introducing other items that can be used as props.

Nonrealistic props are great for encouraging language development, as your child can imagine, then explain and demonstrate, the prop's use. For example, if you are playing with a manufactured magic wand and a fairy godmother costume, you don't have to explain who you are when playing Cinderella; but what if your child have a stick and your playmate is wearing a grown-up's shirt and slippers with tape on them? Then your child can explain that her stick is the magic wand that has "transformed" her friend's outfit into a ball gown and glass slippers. Over time, kids will learn to pretend that they have a prop when in reality, they do not — and their imaginations reach even higher levels!

By using an object to stand in for something else (colored play dough molded into a cupcake), children learn symbolic representation, which is the ability to separate the function of an object from the object itself (you can stir "soup" with a pencil). This is a precursor to more advanced symbolic thinking, such as understanding how a written word can represent a spoken word.

To help your child use props most effectively:

  • Model how to use familiar objects in a pretend way. ("I can pretend that this cup is my microphone. What else could it be?")
  • Introduce unstructured and multi-functional props such as boxes, old clothes, and containers.
  • Provide a combination of props: some that are realistic, some theme-specific, and some that are left up to the child's ingenuity and imagination. 
  • Model how to make props for play using materials from around the house, such as paper, cardboard, yarn, and fabric scraps.
  • Save items associated with specific settings that you have visited, including restaurants, the zoo, the post office, or your workplace.

Expand the Play Repertoire

Children tend to act out familiar themes, which is why "house" and "school" are played over and over again. You can help your child expand his repertoire of play themes and roles by:

  • Using errands as a time to introduce the different roles people play. Make sure that she is able to observe roles that can be acted out in dramatic play. Point out the role: say, "He is the cashier. First, he scans my groceries and then he asks me to give him my credit card. See?" 
  • Encouraging your child to "act out" a role she is interested in exploring. You might end up playing two or more roles yourself, but be sure that your child has a large part in this scenario. 
  • Using a variety of books, including different versions of the same book (with some variations in the text or illustrations), which can help children be more creative about choosing roles and props when acting out the story. 
  • Demonstrating how your child's stuffed animals and dolls can become a part of play when she is alone. Show her how she can talk for those pretend creatures and how they can take on one of the roles in the play. 
  • Showing your child films, videos, and television programs that are based on familiar stories or fairy tales. Don't forget out about "real life videos," such as nature, age-appropriate travel, and other kid-friendly programs. You can play part of a video to isolate a specific role that interests her or play a segment over again to highlight a different role.

When a child's repertoire of roles grows, so does her vocabulary, along with her mastery of grammar. In addition, she is increasing her knowledge of language and how it is used. For example, when playing school, children start using longer, more complex sentences to act out the role of the teacher, incorporating words and expressions that they would not use if they were only to play students. This is very important since children cannot master new words without using them in a meaningful context. Producing the word during play assures that the child understands what the word means.

Introducing new settings and experiences to your child will naturally increase the scope of roles she can play. In addition, as your child takes on new and different roles, she comes to understand that there are many reasons for people to use reading and writing.

As we learn more about how young children learn, it is becoming increasingly obvious that you do not need to sacrifice play in order to fulfill academic requirements. On the contrary, by supporting mature, high-quality play, you will be helping your child on the road to fully developing his language and literacy skills.

Independent Thinking
Decision Making
Creativity & Play
Age 5
Age 4
Age 3
Games and Toys
Games and Toys
Communication and Language Development
Social and Emotional Development
Learning and Cognitive Development
Creativity and Imagination