Emergent Literacy is Play

Notes from the Classroom

Before my daughter’s music class starts, the moms that attend get a chance to chat while we wait for the previous class to end. Last week, the conversation turned toward preschool and what we’ve all decided. One mom said that she wasn’t going to pay for three-year-old preschool because “all they do is play.”

I’ve thought about this notion all week and have decided that play is not such a bad thing.  

When Literacy Begins

In a master’s thesis, Kelly Day says, “Emergent literacy is the natural occurring reading and writing behaviors of children beginning at birth, up until they learn to read and write conventionally.” 

Some examples of emergent literacy at my house–which you can see in the image above–include my daughter’s:

  • “doing work” and using a pencil to write jagged zig zags on paper and cards
  • pointing to distinct scribbles she has written and saying one word for each scribble
  • noticing word bubbles in the “Elephant and Piggie” books and asking who is talking
  • taking a familiar book and turning the pages while “reading” it to her mom and dad
  • looking at a red candy wrapper with white writing and knowing that it says “Kit-Kat”
  • hanging up a “missing cat” poster and asking me to add numbers for the phone number

Writing Through Play

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning.” – Fred Rogers

Much of the writing my daughter creates is based in play. She is a doctor taking notes on her clipboard like Doc McStuffins. She is Mom doing work on the computer and typing words. She is a waitress taking your order in her special black notepad. She is a scientist studying bugs, and making observations in her notebook.

Lots of the games that she and my husband play deal with rhythm and rhyming words. In one game, he reads a familiar book that rhymes and leaves off the last word/rhyme, and she fills it in. Sometimes she thinks that rhyming is when words have the same beginning sounds. One of her favorite phrases right now is: “Hey, that rhymes!” Instead of correcting her, we usually run with it and try to think of more words that have that same sound.

Bring Back the Fun

When I see the joyful play that my daughter partakes in daily, I can’t help but think about how my classroom should awaken students’ playfulness in writing and reading. Where are the areas in my literacy instruction that suffer drabness? How might I capitalize on all I’ve learned about gaming and the Makerspace culture from the MACUL conference to evoke joyful play in my students? Here are some ideas:

  • Poetry has always been a source of joy and so I think I will revisit poem-a-day annotations and perhaps incorporate some interesting technology to further the conversation.
  • Try to use popular song lyrics, rap and rhythm, or rhyming poems more in mini-lessons.
  • I recently attended the 4T Virtual Conference and learned about Genius Hour: giving students 20 percent of class time to work on a project of their own choosing and direction. I’m interested in making Genius Hour happen in my classroom.
  • I want to have a game area (with games like Scrabble, Up Words, Boggle, Balderdash, Madlibs, Crosswords) that students can use at set times or when they are feeling unmotivated.
  • I’m still thinking about how to create a Makerspace in my classroom–what it would have, when kids would use it, how would I infuse writing without making it drain the fun.

Mostly, I want to do more than just add an activity to my daily routine. I want to make play a real focus in my classroom, because a playful mind is a thoughtful mind.

In sending my daughter to preschool next fall, I’m most excited to see how she will negotiate all this playing, this conversation, this pre-literacy–with other kids her age. How they will all create a new, collective knowledge of the world around them and change or grow their sense of what it means to be–all because of play!

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

Power of Play

Notes from the Classroom

1Back in January an article came out that had the teachers in my building thinking, We’ve been saying that forever and finally someone is acting on it! The article was titled Turns Out Monkey Bars And Kickball Might Be Good For The Brain, by Christopher Connely.

The article focuses on Eagle Mountain Elementary School, in Fort Worth, Texas. The school has started a project where the kindergarten- and first-grade school day is modeled after that of a Finnish school day, where students have recess more often: four times a day, for 15 minutes each time. What a dream!

The Texas project was designed by Debbie Rhea, a kinesiologist from Texas Christian University. Rhea had visited Finland, which scores in the top or near the top in international education rankings, to see the differences in their education system, compared to the U.S.’s. She realized the largest difference was that the students had more recess.

The teachers at Eagle Mountain, using this Finnish model, are noticing that students are focusing more and are happier. And even with the extra breaks, teachers aren’t having trouble fitting in the entire curriculum. In fact, halfway through the year they were ahead of schedule.

How We’re Creating Extra Recess

Feeling more empowered by this article, several teachers at Loon Lake Elementary, including myself, started implementing regular breaks into their day. “Brain Breaks,” or just a break in the curriculum action, are something we had been doing for a while but hadn’t made as regular or well known.

When you have been conditioned to believe that you never have enough time to get through all of the curriculum, even small changes feel wrong. But our breaks are often as simple as a dance break, usually from Go Noodle, a yoga break from Cosmic Kids Yoga, playtime, or yes, even extra recess when timing allows.

We are trying to work in structured and unstructured breaks to reap the most benefits. The teachers in my building, like those at Eagle Mountain, have seen that after these breaks the students come back more focused and ready to go. We are also noticing that the gross and fine motor skills of these students are improving.

Beyond Kindergarten

3I am fortunate that in my district, when we started the all-day, every-day kindergarten program in 2008, the district stressed the importance of play in the classroom. I am also fortunate that my building principal supports this. We have free-choice play in my classroom every day; this is something that never changes and I hope never will.

I wish the importance of play extended beyond the kindergarten year, though. We as teachers know it is important, but is often pushed aside, with the implication that it isn’t as important, even though it enhances gross and fine motor skills. Play even helps children with their communication and problem solving skills.

Bob Murray, an Ohio State University pediatrician, is quoted in the article above as saying: “If you want a child to be attentive and stay on task, and also if you want them to encode the information you’re giving them in their memory, you’ve got to give them regular breaks.” So yes, play also helps with the learning process itself.

Mrs. Tisdall, a first grade teacher at my school, was excited to share a story about an extra recess with her students. Her students came running up excitedly with some white pebbles. They were in a debate about what they were: “Are they insect eggs?” “Are they rocks?” “What kind of insect could have laid them?”

The questions and debate kept going. Mrs. Tisdall just stood back and listened. She didn’t have to intervene; through the power of play and exploration, the students were teaching themselves. Then they ran off and started searching for more signs of insects.

I hope that people continue to research and share the importance of play and not just at the lower-elementary level. An even bigger hope is that educators themselves continue to recognize the importance of breaks and play, and give it a shot.

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: http://kindergartentreasures.blogspot.com/) is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She is a part of the Walled Lake iCouncil (Instructional Council) team. She recently won a technology grant from the Walled Lake Foundation for Excellence. She is in her tenth year of teaching, with eight in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.