Grow a Reader: Playing

By Teresa K. Cain

My favorite Grow a Reader practice in the whole world is (drumroll please!) . . . PLAYING!  Goofing off. Clowning around. Kicking up your heels.

But shouldn’t a pre-literacy practice require, oh I dunno—something like . . . practice?

Of course, playing comes very easily to most children. But don’t be fooled into thinking that because it comes naturally, playing doesn’t have value. Playing gives kids practice at thinking symbolically and using their imaginations. And, since words are basically just symbols for objects, actions, and ideas, learning to think symbolically is a priceless pre-literacy skill.*

Here are some simple ways to “practice” playing:

  • Whether it’s a cell phone, a shovel, or a dishcloth, let’s face it—your “toys” are always way more fun. Children love to pretend to do grown-up stuff. Combine a brown paper bag with an empty cereal box, egg carton, shampoo container, and plastic peanut butter jar, and you’ve created a pint-sized grocery shopping experience. Pretend play, sometimes called dramatic play, allows kids to put ideas into words.
  • Physical activity is a great way to reinforce new words. Try playing Simon Says with interesting phrases, such as  “sway gently,” “march hastily,” “laugh heartily,” and “breathe deeply.” Will a preschooler have any idea what all these words mean? Probably not—until you demonstrate. And, when they mimic your actions and repeat your words, those new words become theirs to use again and again.
  • We’ve all bought gifts for children who had much more fun with the box that the gift came in than the gift itself. Why? It’s because the simplest objects—boxes, sticks, balls—leave the most room for a child’s imagination to run free. Toys don’t have to be complicated or expensive to build pre-literacy skills.  
  • Even if you're not ready for Dancing with the Stars, a child will be pleased and proud to share a dance floor (or a kitchen floor) with you. Physical experience translates into brain development. So, put on your favorite music, and dance like nobody’s watching. If you’re worried about lyrics, try a different artist or an instrumental.  
  • Playing doesn’t always have to be about physical activity. Try a few books that include guessing games to encourage your child practice saying words. Examples are Lunch, by Denise Fleming, What Does Bunny See? by Linda Sue Park, and I Went Walking, by Sue Williams. You can find many other good books to encourage play on our list, CRRL Grow a Reader: Playing.

So, encourage your child to get busy with the work of childhood. Play around. Cut a few capers. And dance like you mean it.

*Joan Brooks McLane and Gillian Dowley McNamee, Beginnings of Literacywww.zerotothree.org.

Here are some books that work well with the practice of playing:

CRRL Grow a Reader: Playing

Camping is always full of surprises--especially if your camping buddies are dinosaurs!

Learn about animals by pretending to be one!

Young readers glimpse a small part of a familiar farm animal in this guessing game book.

A yellow dot leads readers on a journey of the imagination.

A ninja-in-training meets a samurai-in-training, and they admire each other's shugyo style.

If you want to plant a flower garden, where do you start? By checking out gardening books from the library, of course.

How do you compete with someone's favorite TV show? Well, you get a giant gorilla...

One hungry mouse helps himself to a smorgasbord of food in this silly guessing game book.

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