How Play Enhances Reading Experiences

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In “Serious Fun,” a new book from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), editors Marie Masterson and Holly Bohart invite early childhood education experts to explore the power that play adds to any educational experience.

Play can be totally free, or it can be “guided” — where education and play naturally converge. That is when children create their ownPlay 6 play and exploration with adult participation and input.

Reading through this slim volume I encountered a section that got me thinking about adding some of the qualities of play to the challenges of literacy learning in elementary and middle school. To that end, I’ve adapted the following list from the section called “What Teachers do During Play” (Laurel Bongiorno, p 117). Playful engagements can capture and focus the energy that older kids and even adults still naturally bring to any exploratory or inquiry event. This is especially powerful when the learner of any age is making new language and literacy learning their very own.

Play 1These are some actions that parents and literacy teachers might try during reading and writing engagements to leverage the power of play and lighten otherwise daunting challenges:

  1. Observe children and notice what they know and can do. In literacy, this kind of kid-watching is fruitful as children read, listen and discuss. Help them identify their strengths; call them out.
  2. Ask questions that prompt children to think and talk about their ideas and give specific feedback to smooth the path forward. This requires conversation with just enough structure to sharpen focus on the challenges of a particular selection or concept. When an adult says, “Maybe try this…” or  asks “Could you look at that another way?,” it can be eye opening to a child or group.
  3. Encourage children’s persistence and effort not just their accomplishments. Emotional encouragement can focus on developmental issues from book handling to interpretive reading of poetry.
  4. Create challenges to invite young readers to stretch their learning strategies and develop and refine literacy concepts. “How about you try thisPlay 4…?” or “You know what might be fun,…?” “Let’s give it a shot and see how you enjoy that!” are all inviting ways to suggest children go deeper in their learning.
  5. Help children solve problems by offering a few potential avenues of inquiry. Say things like, “Since you like this, I bet you’ll love, ….!” “I’ve wondered about that myself. How might we find out more about that?”
  6. Document what children are doing and saying as a guide for the future. Recording quick  notes on a simple form or in a diary can create an anchor to the past that can serve as a powerful guide to plan or respond to future engagements.

As preschoolers mature into youth and then young adults, some of the silly play of early childhood evolves into joyful self-expression seen in sports participation, book clubs, interest groups and hobbies, explorations and investigations. The degree to which play is central to those endeavors creates a solid emotional foundation for lifelong learning.

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