“Play is the work of the child.” -Maria Montessori
I firmly believe that young children learn best through play. The research abounds on this topic and a plethora of educators, philosophers, and child psychologists including Maria Montessori, Diane Ackerman, Jean Piaget, and Fred Rogers have argued the same.
Writing and playing go hand in hand in the early childhood classroom. The writing workshop nurtures something very special in young writers: their newfound ability to communicate (authentically!) through pictures AND words. They learn to become personal narrative writers, creative storytellers, experts on a variety of informational topics, poets, list-makers and much more. The doors to so many wonderful learning opportunities are opened wide when these curricular pieces are thoughtfully coupled with what children do so naturally: play!
Unfortunately, in myriad Kindergarten classrooms in the United States, play has been drastically scaled back in favor of rigidly taught lessons based on objectives-aligned curricula. Teachers are forced to structure their classrooms and daily schedules in ways that feel counterintuitive to the developmental needs of their young learners. Block corners, art centers, and dramatic play areas are pushed aside, if they exist at all. Who has time for open-ended play when five and six year olds must by the end of the school year meet district-wide or national benchmarks?
The trouble is that in early childhood, children MUST play! It’s as nourishing as eating and drinking, as life affirming as breathing, and as restorative as sleeping.
I once taught in a school where play in Kindergarten was all but abandoned. Yes, my students learned to read and write in a structured and systematic way, but the consequence of not having opportunities to read and write for authentic purposes was that they did not develop much of an identity as readers or writers outside of the designated reading and writing times. Even worse, they rarely experienced joy in reading or writing on their own. As a teacher, I knew I was doing my students a huge disservice but my hands were tied by the powers that be. Like many educators in pedagogically mismatched situations, I left the school.
I am fortunate now to teach Kindergarten in a nursery-12th grade school that values and prioritizes play in the early childhood classroom. Kindergarten is the oldest grade in the early learning center instead of the youngest grade in the lower division–an indication (to me) that my school believes that five and six year olds are still very young children and benefit from a predominantly play based environment. I have some flexibility in terms of how I organize the school day and I want my students to know that I take their play time very seriously. In addition to 30 minutes of recess, we have play centers every day for at least 45 minutes.
There is deep value in forging connections between writing and playing by finding regular opportunities to have children write while they play and play while they write. The good news is that for young children, playtime offers a low stakes setting in which experimentation and approximation of all kinds can take place. During play, children are more likely to take risks because they are “trying on” new skills without the expectation that they will do it “right” or “wrong.” Children are more likely to work independently during play time, seek out and find classroom resources like alphabet charts and sight word walls, and even turn to their peers for support rather than always to their teacher. When children build, make believe, draw, construct, and imagine, they are engaged in hard work of their own making, and so there is a heightened level of inventiveness and industriousness. Writing while playing also helps children grow their writing identities as they practice word solving skills, experiment with language and communication styles, and write for authentic purposes.
But what does this actually look like in practice? Many elements of the rich writing workshop instruction that teachers plan, prep, and model can be transferred into child-initiated experiences during play centers, quiet time, arrival activities, or other flexible parts of the day–but it takes some effort. As teachers, we can introduce and model writing moments that merge children’s developing skills and identities as writers with the play they are already doing. We can provide them with sufficient writing materials and model different ways they can write stories, how-to books, messages, menus, recipes, lists, and more during playtime. And we can frequently celebrate and honor the written work that children do so that writing becomes a valued experience that resonates with them and their level of cognitive demand.
“Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” -Jean Piaget
Whether a child is playing alone, with a partner, or in a small group, there is typically some kind of internal or external language experience or expression taking place during open ended play centers or guided play. As a teacher, I try to observe and listen in or prompt and ask questions to get a better sense of what kind of “writing” a child is already doing. Sometimes children play within a narrative framework as they imagine new worlds, invent stories, or retell personal experiences through block-building, dramatic play, or art-making. Other times, they work non-narratively as they become experts, fact-tellers, or teachers of information on non-fiction topics. All the ways that children play, create, and express their thoughts and ideas can have a written component too. Just as the writing workshop teaches a “menu” of options that students can use as they write, offering a variety of writing experiences during play centers increases the chances that children will try them.
One accessible way to merge writing and playing is in blocks. This can begin with labeling. In writing workshop, labeling is taught early on in the school year as children begin to connect letters and words to their drawings and ideas.The labels become an entry point for children who are emergent readers and writers and who do not yet have a concept of what a sentence is.
Once children have learned the basics of how to use blocks safely, a basket of paper scraps, post-it notes, writing utensils, an alphabet chart, and tape can be introduced. After modeling how to use these materials, children can affix their labels to their structures just as they would the parts of their picture in writing workshop. Before long, the block area will likely be full of labels that children write and tape directly onto the blocks themselves! As is developmentally appropriate, some labels may consist only of one or two letters: “B” for bridge or “TR” for tower, while other labels might contain entire words or simple phrases: “Danger!” or “Keep out!” or “Empire State Building” As the writing workshop curriculum introduces sentences, teachers can encourage students to write sentence labels instead of just one or two words, “This is the Empire State Building,” or “I made a giant hotel!”
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.” -Fred Rogers
What happens if some children do not want to incorporate writing as they build in blocks? This most certainly will happen, and it is totally ok. But oftentimes, reluctant children will want to try it when they see their peers doing this work. It can also help to highlight and celebrate the range of all of the wonderful labeling that children have been doing before sending everyone off to choose their center–from single letters and words to longer sentences. When teachers get really excited about something, children often feed off of that enthusiasm, motivating hesitant writers to attempt this type of work, too!
Literacy-rich moments can also be merged with dramatic play because it is based on storytelling, character development, and dialogue. Whether there is a pretend play kitchen with food and props, some other kind of predetermined setting like an airport or a hair salon, or just an empty space, children are masterful at imagining entire worlds and developing stories from almost nothing at all. They quickly assume roles and just like that, they are pretending together. Similar to blocks, writing resources can include varied paper choices, writing utensils, alphabet charts, sight word lists, tape, and post-its, but they may also include things like blank books which are either stapled packets of whatever writing paper students usually use, or a few pieces of copy paper folded in half and stapled down the side.
One way that children typically come to writing during dramatic play is through oral storytelling. Vivian Gussin Paley’s well-established work around this offers much inspiration for ways that teachers can support children telling stories and acting them out. The words and ideas come directly from the children. The teacher listens carefully and takes dictation, writing down the words and phrases exactly as they are spoken. Then the teacher helps the students choose roles and reads the story back to them so they can act it out. This is a wonderful entrypoint for writing in dramatic play and becomes a form of prewriting in the early childhood classroom as the teacher prompts students to do the important oral production work without having to simultaneously figure out how to write the words. It helps children develop their ideas, invent characters, and experiment with story elements like plot and problem / solution. This work can then be turned into books that children write during play time or even during the writing workshop if the unit of study allows.
Another natural connection between dramatic play and writing, particularly if there is a kitchen or food scenario setup, is through playing “restaurant” or “grocery store.” Teachers can supply actual menus, grocery store advertisements, coupons, and other relevant text-rich materials for students to explore. These can be used as models for children to make their own versions or from which to cull words and phrases they might use as they pretend to be waiters, chefs, cashiers, or shoppers. Students can write menus, shopping lists, signs and advertisements, invitations, and recipes. If the dramatic play area is set up like an airport, for example, students can write airport signs, plane tickets, travel itineraries, and postcards. A hair salon can yield lists of haircut options, magazines to read while waiting, and a tip jar. Opportunities for writing in dramatic play are plentiful.
When children draw, paint, construct with paper, or use clay, they are doing important literacy-based thinking work. They are developing their ideas, making plans, using classroom resources, revising and editing as they go, and sharing their work with others. One way that children tend to write during free art play is by writing messages and cards to teachers, family members, and one another. On special occasions like someone’s birthday, teachers can model how to write birthday messages. Or if a classmate is home sick, students can write them get well cards.
Another wonderful entry point for writing in an art center is through puppet making. Students can make puppets from a variety of materials, and with some teacher support, develop characters, settings, and plots. Through repeated play or “playdates,” children can begin to develop their characters’ identities and write stories about them. This work can take place during writing workshop, but it can also be turned into a choice that students make during play time.
“Play is the brain’s favorite way of learning” -Diane Ackerman
If you work in a school where play is not prioritized or consistent, hopefully you can find other ways to infuse writing into the work that children do when time allows, such as during arrival activities or quiet time. Try to keep a stack of blank books handy for children to write in when they get to school or when they come back inside from recess or lunch. Or make an official “quiet time journal” with a cover that children can write in and take home to keep each week. Not all children will want to do this work, but sometimes the ones who do surprise us. Giving children opportunities to write when they are relaxed and when the outcome is open ended can be such a wonderful gift to them and their burgeoning self-expression.
As we get back into the rhythm and routines of school this new year, consider ways in which you can infuse more writing into play time. We work so hard to build childrens’ identities as writers and support them with rich writing experiences during writing workshop. It is just as important to transfer this work to other times of the day, especially during joyful play times, so that children can truly embrace their craft and develop their own unique writer’s purpose and voice.