by V. Susan Bennett-Armistead

Play is many things to many people. For most of us, it is a self-selected, self-directed activity that children carry out for pleasure. In fact, many leaders in our field, such as David Elkind, Vivian Paley, and Lilian Katz have referred to play as “children’s work” because it provides rich opportunities to learn concepts such as cause and effect (“If you hit a tower of blocks, it will fall down.”) and time relationships (“I will play dress-up with you after lunch, at choice time.”). It also helps children gain understandings of how the world works (“Some things float and some things sink.”), how to get along with others (“If you take Billy’s truck, he will scream at you.”), how to entertain one’s self (“Fingerpaint feels awesome between your toes!”), and how to solve problems (“Fingerpaint is really hard to get off your toes.”).

But don’t let that definition let you forget an essential point: play should be fun. The Association for Child Development defines play in its position statement as a “dynamic, active and constructive behavior” that is “essential for all children.” Fun matters. It’s what gets children engaged, curious, and coming back for more. 

In this article, I focus on a specific kind of play: dramatic play or, as it’s sometimes called, pretend play, imitative play, and symbolic play, which usually involves:

  • reenacting everyday activities or situations that children observe, such as diapering a baby
  • engaging in intensely imaginative activities based on knowledge children gain from books, movies, and other sources, such as exploring the tropical jungle
  • retelling and/or reenacting stories they hear, such as The Three Little Pigs
  • singing and acting out songs they hear, such as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”

Dramatic play can help you meet your curricular goals and build your children’s developing literacy skills. It allows children to experiment with purposes for literacy they’ve seen at home, to recognize that different tasks require different texts, to produce a wide variety of texts, and to act out stories they have heard. Here, I discuss each of these benefits.

Dramatic play allows children to experiment with purposes for literacy they’ve seen at home.

By including functional print, such as newspapers, personal letters, menus, shelf signs, coupons, and labeled food containers, in children’s play and giving them paper and pens for writing, we create an environment that allows them to interact with print as adults do. We give them a chance to see, first hand, the many ways we use text in everyday life. This is very different from what happens during group time, when we tend to read books. Researchers Susan Neuman and Kathleen Roskos found that classrooms rich in functional print inspired more literacy-focused dramatic play, which resulted in children with greater literacy competencies.

Dramatic play allows children to recognize that different tasks require different texts.

By regularly and systematically incorporating literacy props into dramatic play, you help children realize that different tasks require different texts. For example, the firefighters might need a map of the city to locate emergencies, but the veterinarian needs an appointment book and pamphlets about pet care to hand out to her patients’ owners. The restaurant has menus and order pads, but the flower shop has seed packets and price lists. This exposure to a wide range of texts helps children differentiate text features—even very young children. For example, children tend to format a shopping list differently from the way they format a map.

Dramatic play allows children to produce a wide variety of texts.

Many of us are drawn to storybooks because that’s what we were raised on. However, there are so many more options for young children today. By exposing children to a wide variety of functional texts, we encourage them to create a wide variety of functional text, too. Children might make traffic signs to post in the block area, a list for use at the grocery store, a receipt for a customer at the pizza shop, or a letter to a friend to mail at the post office. When children see multiple purposes for text, they are more likely to find a purpose that matters to them. In short, by exposing children to many texts and giving them the opportunity to create their own, they are more likely to include text in their lives, not just in their play.

Dramatic play builds comprehension by allowing children to act out familiar stories.

Acting out and/or retelling a story helps children make that story their own—and truly comprehend it. They gain an understanding of the characters, the structure, and the themes. For example, after reading Paul Galdone’s version of the Three Billy Goats Gruff, try encouraging children to act out the story. By taking on different roles, they will gain an understanding that characters have different personalities and motivations. They will learn that the story unfolds in a certain way: the littlest billy goat goes over the bridge first, then the midsized goat, then the biggest goat, and so on. In the process, young children gain a sophisticated understanding of narrative structure.

Concluding Thought

If all of this sounds too advanced for preschoolers, remember that what I’m advocating is play. Play that is enriched by literacy. Play that is enriched by community. Play that is enriched by the artifacts you offer. Children are naturally interested in the world around them. Unlike things they can learn by playing independently (such as block buildings tip over when they are heavier on the top than on the bottom), literacy concepts, skills, and understandings must be taught. They have to be learned from someone else. Children cannot learn the names of the letters if no one ever tells them. They won’t learn sound-symbol relationships if they haven’t been shown letters and the sounds that go with them. They can’t learn how books work if they’ve never been read to. All of these are important precursors to conventional reading. In the early years, we have the luxury of playfully teaching these concepts. We support emerging skills and understandings in fun, engaging ways by allowing children to play with books, write their own stories, make their own maps and signs, and, in general, showing them the value of engaging with and creating text. When it’s time for conventional reading and writing, they’ll be prepared for having been in your program!

This article is excerpted from Literacy-Building Play in Preschool: Lit Kits, Prop Boxes, and Other Easy-to-Make Tools to Boost Emergent Reading and Writing Skills Through Dramatic Play