2013-12-06 / Community

Library Links

Play is an important part of literacy
By Rachel Davis

If you’re looking for gifts for a young child this holiday season, I have some advice for you: simpler is better.

Literacy is one of the most crucial skills for success in life, but it’s not just about books and reading, especially for very young children. Of course, I’m not knocking books and reading (and books always make excellent gifts for children,) but research during the last 20 years or so has confirmed the importance of play in the development of early literacy skills. Why? Because so much of what children do in play mirrors what happens in reading and writing. Reading words and understanding them is really about decoding symbols – letters stand for sounds, words stand for ideas. When children engage in imaginative play, they inhabit a self-created world made up of symbols – a block becomes a phone or a loaf of bread, for example. Children also engage in storytelling when they play, setting up characters and scenarios; playing house, or setting up a tea party, or acting out scenes with superheroes or cars are all types of story making. Story concepts, including sequencing and character development, are explored and developed naturally through play, as are crucial life skills such as problem solving, negotiation and the understanding of cause and effect.

I was recently at a library workshop at which we discussed some of the crucial links between literacy development and play. We were each given a selection of toys for very young children and asked to take a few minutes to come up with at least three ways each toy could be used that was not its intended purpose. For example, I had a group of stacking rings. One of the rings could be a doughnut in a bakery shop or a lifeboat for a doll, or a goofy hat. A music shaker could be a telephone, a chicken leg or a mixing spoon. The purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate the kinds of toys that promote early childhood literacy development. The simplicity of those toys allows children to direct their own play, as opposed to toys that only do one thing, and once the child figures that out, there is no more to be done with it. Children will quickly lose interest in a toy that has only a single, predetermined activity associated with it.

Have you ever had the experience of giving a child a fancy, perhaps somewhat expensive toy, only to have him or her be more interested in the box it came in? There is a reason for that. The best, most interesting toys for young children are 10 percent toy and 90 percent child. The good news is that those toys are also often the least expensive. Blocks and other building toys, paper and crayons, dress up clothes and other toys that encourage dramatic play, such as puppets, kitchen props or pretend tools, are all great choices to encourage not only imaginative play, but literacy development. When you play with a child, you can enhance literacy learning by talking about things that involve written words – if your child sets up a restaurant, together you could make a menu or a sign for a store, or a list of rules for a made up game, or a score sheet for a race with toy cars. The more your child models different everyday or fantasy activities in play, the more those connections between words, ideas and the purpose of written words in the real world will be made. When you shop for a toy, try to think about different imaginative ways it could be used. Does it only do one thing, or could a child use it many different ways? Does it require the child to supply a particular action, word or piece in order to make it work, or can the child determine for him or herself how to use it? Children are explorers, not robots. Just as books and stories allow children to explore different ideas and points of view in a safe way, so do toys that allow their imaginations to soar. And of course, if you can’t find a toy you’re happy with for that special child in your life, you can’t go wrong with a good book – your local children’s librarian will be happy to provide you with some terrific recommendations.

Rachel Davis is assistant director and children’s librarian at Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth.

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