Promoting Literacy Through Play

Literacy through play

You might be surprised to learn that children develop literacy and language skills on the first day of their lives. From the moment a baby enters the world, they take in information from their surroundings, including how to communicate with others. When children play, they learn how language works and how to interact with other people. As the saying goes, “play is the work of a child.”

You can foster literacy at home by using these five tips:

  1. Create a Play-Rich Environment
    Setting up an environment in your home that provokes wonder, curiosity, and metacognition is easier than you think. Remember that less is more, and having too many toys or crowded spaces can overwhelm your little one. To foster uninterrupted play, try to:

    • Keep toys at eye level or below in the play area so children can access them easily.
    • Provide objects that can be used for more than one purpose. Ideas include: scarves, blocks, baskets, mason jar tops, ropes, pom-poms, spools, feathers, and bottle corks (these suggestions are not intended for children under three years old). Model how to use these objects in imaginative play.
    • Find a variety of costumes and props for dramatic play. Dramatic play provides many opportunities for children to practice language by explaining thinking and roles, creating pretend scenarios, solving problems, etc.
  2. Say “Yes” to Unstructured Time
    From longer hours at work to enrolling kids in lots of extracurricular activities, families are exhausted. Instead of scheduling an activity for every waking moment, say yes to unstructured time (also known as “free time”). Play is a building block of healthy brain development, and an important precursor for learning to read and write. So take your little one outside to dig or create a structure with rocks. Or if the weather isn’t ideal, set up a castle in the living room and enjoy watching your child’s imagination at work.
  3. Vocalize What’s Happening
    When you play alongside your child, you can foster language development by discussing roles, objects, and directions. For example, if your child has a doctor kit and wants you to be the patient, you can expand your child’s vocabulary by referring to the tools in the doctor kit by their correct names (e.g. thermometer, stethoscope, etc.) To introduce more complex sentences, vocalize what you are doing in your role: “Hi doctor. I am so sick! I need you to take my temperature.” Remember that infusing language into social interactions benefits literacy development.
  4. Use Experiences to Expand Themes
    Build your child’s repertoire of play themes by exposing them to new experiences. Children “play what they know” and are unable to gain new ideas unless they experience them firsthand. So take that trip to the aquarium, spend time at museums and bask in the sun at the beach. Enjoy watching your child integrate these new experiences into their play.
  5. Be Present
    More than anything, your child will thrive if you show them that you are interested in what they are doing. When you value play, you show your child that you care about their happiness. When children feel comfortable and supported, they will be more likely to take necessary risks and try new things.

Resources on Promoting Literacy Through Play

Developing Literacy Through Play by Alissa Marie Mielonen and Wendy Paterson.
Summertime Solutions: The Benefits of Unstructured Play from PBS Parents
Building Language and Literacy Through Play from Scholastic

By April Brown (M.Ed), writer and education consultant based in Austin, TX.

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