Sonya and Alyssa are playing family. "Dinner's ready," calls Sonya. Alyssa joins her friend at the table and pretends to take a bite of cake. "You have to eat your vegetables first," chides Sonya, moving a plate with plastic broccoli closer to Alyssa. "I'm done. I'll go play now," says Alyssa. She quickly gets up and leaves the dramatic-play area.

In the block area, Luke is stacking blocks on top of one another while Maria and Jason play with trains and cars. "Vroom-vroom," roars Jason as he moves his red truck back and forth. "Choo-choo," echoes Maria, bringing her caboose to a stop.

These two play episodes can be seen in any one of the thousands of early childhood classrooms where children explore, experiment, and master the beginnings of literacy, numeracy, and science. And all this happens while children talk and play with each other. Language, oral as well as written, permeates all classroom activities. Even when children are not talking to each other, they listen to the teacher's directions, respond to her questions, attend to the book she shares with them, or identify their cubbies with their names written on them. The same could be said about play. Except for the short periods of snacking, cleaning up, or listening to a book, almost everything children are doing at school could be described as "play."

Defining the Teacher's Role

Does this mean that we shouldn't worry about helping children learn how to play? How to listen and talk? How to interpret print? Should we concentrate on teaching children about print and leave them alone to develop their language and play skills on their own? Or, do we need to support children's learning of language, but not intervene in play?

These questions are often on the minds of teachers of young children as they try to address ever-rising academic expectations. At the same time, they feel responsible for fostering the development of underlying cognitive, linguistic, and social-emotional skills. As we learn more about how young children learn, it is becoming clear that we do not need to sacrifice play in order to meet academic requirements. On the contrary, only by supporting mature, high-quality play can we really help children fully develop their language and literacy skills.

Prompting Language and Literacy

Many of children's behaviors have a play element in them-from fingerplays, to movement games, to building with blocks. However, the play that has the most profound effect on language and literacy development is dramatic play. The characteristics of dramatic play that provide the best opportunities for children to practice language and literacy include:

  • Using a variety of props and objects ("Let's pretend this block is our phone and we have to call for help when the car breaks down.")
  • Combining multiple roles and themes ("Toby is the daddy. He's the doctor too.")
  • Creating a pretend scenario and solving disagreements by talking and negotiating ("Let's play hospital. O.K., you'll be the doctor first, and then I'll be the doctor. You wear this.")

All three elements must be present to promote the highest levels of language and literacy development. However, not all play interactions occur at this level. In the first episode, Sonya and Alyssa are acting out a familiar scenario that does not require using new words they might have recently learned. In addition, having only realistic props, including plastic cake and broccoli, makes additional explanations unnecessary.

In the case of Luke, Jason, and Maria, there are even fewer opportunities to practice new vocabulary or more complex sentences. First, there is no play scenario that would integrate these children's actions into a whole. In addition, because of the self-explanatory nature of toys and operation of these toys, children hardly need to explain to each other what is it that they are doing.

What we can see from these two episodes is that the level of play does not allow children to engage in long, extended dialogues with complex sentence structure and extensive vocabulary. Further, the low level of play will make it hard for the teacher to integrate more literacy learning into these children's activities. We can almost guarantee that Sonya and Alyssa will not start spontaneously using markers and paper available in their play "house." Luke, Maria, and Jason will not look at the books about transportation in the block area before starting a new construction. This is why it's important to make sure that the play itself is ready to absorb new language and literacy learning before introducing it into children's play activities.

Raising the Level of Play

Intervening in children's play is a delicate thing. On the one hand, we cannot simply stand back and let children figure out how to play. Children may be lacking social skills or they may be unable to use play props in an imaginative way. Left to their own devices, children will continue playing in ways that are familiar to them. On the other hand, we cannot intervene in play the same way we would intervene in other activities. We cannot become "players" as if we are also children. Our well-meaning corrections (no, you cannot feed bunny plastic carrots), or redirections (you cannot take this puzzle from Lucia, but you can use another one), change play from a child to child activity to another teacher-directed one.

The best way to help children play at a higher level is to provide the necessary assistance at the preparatory stages. Become involved before children go into the playhouse or start opening boxes in the block area. If you want to intervene when the play is already under way, you will have to do it indirectly, with minimal intrusion, trying to stay as long as possible outside children's play. For example, if you see children stuck in their scenario, not knowing what else to do, you can offer suggestions without actually entering the play center. To advance their play, you might pretend to call them on the phone ("This is mission control calling. We need you to direct your spaceship to the moon, and collect some moon rocks for us.")

Here are some suggestions to help you raise children's level of play without making it a teacher-directed activity:

  • Help children see different uses for familiar props and create new props.
  • Expand the repertoire of play themes and roles by exposing children to new and varied experiences.
  • Help children use appropriate strategies in planning their play with their playmates, and, later, in carrying out their play.

Using Props Imaginatively

Children's play is often referred to as "imagination without limits." However, if you look closely at play in most classrooms, you will see that children are not using a great deal of imagination. In fact, their play props appear to be miniature copies of real objects. When there is no prop for a certain role (no stethoscope for a doctor), a child often prefers to give up the role, rather than use something else as a stethoscope.

Realistic props are useful as tools to introduce children to pretend play. These realistic props help children maintain their roles, or remember what the play scenario is all about ("We're playing grocery store and I'm the checker because I have an apron on."). However, after children have some experience using these props, it's time to start replacing them with new props that can have more than one function (for example, a plate used in a pretend restaurant scenario becomes a dial in a pretend spaceship). Eventually, children will be able to use unstructured materials for their props, make their own props, or even pretend that they have a prop when in reality they do not. Typically, by the middle of the year, you can begin to change the ratio of toys from being largely realistic to a combination of realistic, symbolic, and unstructured props.

To help children discover new uses for familiar objects, as well as feel comfortable with new props, you can:

  • Model how to use familiar objects in a pretend way (I can pretend this cup is my microphone. What else could it be?).
  • Introduce unstructured and multi-functional props in the play area (boxes, bolts of cloth).
  • Model how to make props for play using materials in other centers (blocks, art materials).

Learning Symbolic Representation

By using objects that represent other objects (such as colored play dough representing food), children learn symbolic representation. This ability to separate the function of an object from the object itself (using a pencil to stir, pretending you stir with a spoon) is the foundation for more advanced symbolic representations, such as the written word as a representation of a spoken word.

Also, when children use symbolic props in their play, they are encouraged to use language more extensively. Labeling props, and the actions that accompany them, spurs children on to communicate their ideas about play to their friends and to make sure that their roles work together. For example, you do not need to explain that you are playing captain if you use toy binoculars. But you do need to explain further if all you have is a paper tube and you want other children to be on the same pretend ship. Symbolic props incite children to give more detail about their pretend scenarios.

Expanding Play Themes

Children tend to act out familiar themes. This is why they might play family over and over again or stick to aggressive television/video themes. Children may not know how to play fire station, grocery store, or beauty salon. Even when children start to expand on a theme that you expect is familiar to them-such as restaurant or grocery store-they often revert to playing family because they know how to play the roles of parents and children who eat out or shop for groceries. Since high-level play involves children's knowledge of many roles and themes, you will need to introduce children to new settings and experiences. They will then be able to integrate these new experiences into their play. Help children expand their repertoire of play themes and roles by:

Using field trips. Make sure that on these trips, children are able to observe at least four or five different roles that can be acted out in dramatic play.

Inviting guest speakers, it helps if the guest speaker can engage children in acting out a pretend scenario. (A firefighter might say, "Now you pretend you have a fire in your house and you are calling 911. Imagine that you are telling me where I need to go.")

Showing carefully chosen videos. Videos based on familiar stories or fairy tales are a good way to expand children's repertoire of play themes, as well as nonfiction videos depicting people doing different jobs (videos about hospitals, spaceships, road construction). Don't forget that you can play part of a video to isolate the specific roles or play sections over again to highlight different roles.

Sharing books. Having versions of the same book with some variations in the text and with different illustrations will help children be more creative in choosing roles and props when acting out this story. Before you know it, you have a little boy playing Goldilocks!

When children act out new themes, they practice new vocabulary associated with these new themes. This is very important since mastery of new words cannot be accomplished without children using these words in a meaningful context. Producing the words during play assures us that the children actually understand what the word means. Also, as children take on different roles, they try out new expressions and intonations that best fit their characters. With the repertoire of roles growing, so does their vocabulary, mastery of grammar, pragmatics of language, and metalinguistic awareness (children's knowledge of language and how it is used). For example, when playing "school," children start using longer and more complex sentences when they act out the role of the teacher or the librarian, incorporating in their speech the words and expressions that they do not use if they play "students."

Another important thing children learn as they act out new themes and new roles is that there are many reasons for people to use reading and writing. For example, a doctor will mix up two X-ray films if she does not write the patients' names on them. The firelighters will not be able to find the house on fire if they cannot read a map.

Planning For Play

Because of its open-ended nature, play often causes more arguments among children than other activities. Most of the time, these arguments are not caused by children's aggression but rather by their lack of knowledge about roles and rules of a specific play scenario. When children are tugging on a stethoscope, it is usually not because any of them have a really good idea of how to use this prop, but just the opposite - because none of them knows what to do when playing hospital other than wear the stethoscope. When children are aware of different roles involved in a play theme, of what each person does, and how they interact with each other, they are less likely to argue. It's easier to see if children know how to play before they begin their play scenario. This helps them to use positive interactions before the play starts. In the heat of the moment, a child would not be very likely to let go of a stethoscope, but earlier, at the planning stage, he may be fine with the idea of switching from being a doctor to being an X-ray technician.

Planning play does not mean that children have to rigidly adhere to the plans. Planning involves preparing for play so that children have a better chance of having positive, language-rich interactions rather than arguments and conflicts.

You can help children plan for play by:

  • Making sure children know how they would play (the roles they are playing, the theme of the play, the scenario to follow, the props they use) and that they can communicate this knowledge to their playmates (I am playing TV station and this thing is my microphone.).
  • Encouraging children to plan their play orally and later use drawing and writing (I am going to play submarine and I will be the captain.).
  • Creating opportunities for "play mentoring. " Play mentors could be children of the same age but with a higher level of play, or older children. After school programs provide an excellent opportunity for young children to learn play skills in a multi-age group situation.
  • Emphasizing the language and the actions of the roles children act out that exemplify positive social behaviors (polite language used by a salesperson or how truck drivers carrying blocks, and construction workers using them, must coordinate their actions when building a house).

Play planning encourages children to practice using language to discuss the play scenario, and to make the roles, props, and actions clear to the other players. It is the time when the teacher can prompt the use of new vocabulary and encourage children to use the literacy elements (pencils, paper, books) that are in the play area.

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. And self-regulation is one of the universal pre-requisites for any academic learning, including literacy. When children plan together, negotiate their roles, or correct a playmate whose actions do not fit the role he is playing, they learn how to delay gratification. They learn to do things that may not seem to be the most attractive choices at the moment, but are needed for sustaining play in the long run.

Creating Play-Rich Environments

You're probably already familiar with the concept of "literacy-rich environments." If we are to approach play development in the same thoughtful way, we will need to take a closer look at our classrooms to see if there is enough there to support mature, high-level play. Here are some ways to make your classroom play-rich:

  • Make sure there is a long, uninterrupted block of time in the schedule reserved for 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 a half-hour to an hour for young children to develop and act out a good play scenario.
  • Have a combination of props in the dramatic-play center-some that are realistic and theme-specific, and some that are not. Returning from a field trip, try to arrange with the hosts to let you have one or two props associated with this specific setting (an orange bucket from a hardware store or a vet's robe from a pet store).
  • Place pictures you took on the field trips, or copies of book illustrations, in the dramatic-play area when children are using play themes based on these trips and books. This will remind children of the different roles they can play.
  • Refrain from limiting pretend play to the dramatic-play center. Have enough toys and props in all centers for children to be able to engage in play in those areas as well.
  • Extend the play theme to other centers. Children in the art center can make the pizzas for the restaurant. Children at the sand table can be planting the vegetables that will be sold in the supermarket.
  • Have different play scenarios going on in different centers. The literacy center can be a school, a post office, or a library.
  • Have children practice pretending in different situations. Incorporate elements of pretend play into other activities and routines throughout the day. For example, if you have to take children to the bathroom across the hall, you can help them go quietly by asking them to pretend that they are little mice. Suggest that they walk in such a way that they would not wake up a cat who is hiding in the hall.

With small adjustments to the things that you are already doing in the classroom, you can create the "play-rich" environment that will promote the development of language and literacy.