There exist a host of misconceptions about play and play-based learning. Some suggest play and academic work are distinct and should not be mixed together. Others feel all play should be goal-directed and structured, not open-ended and free. But the truth is, the lines here are very blurry. Research suggests play and academic learning can be melded into what is more recently being termed as play-based learning curriculums. In addition, experts advise both child-initiated free play as well as guided play-based activities be integrated into the early learning classroom.
To understand this better, it is essential to familiarize ourselves with certain aspects of play. Firstly, play is exploratory in nature. It is the natural way children engage with the outside world and it is how they develop practical, real-life skills. Watch any group of preschoolers playing ‘house’ and you will know what I mean. For example, you may see the working mother’s child carrying a briefcase full of papers, sporting a busy expression, and speaking phrases such as: “I’m heading out to a meeting.” Secondly, play is intrinsically motivating. From a child’s point of view, play is an invitation, a provocation which eventually turns into an inherently rewarding, fun process. Finally, play is developmental. As children play, their cognitive, social, language, physical and creative skills improve and become more complex.
Play takes many forms but one authentic and often overlooked play context is socio-dramatic play, in which children take on roles and imitate behaviors they observe from real-life people and experiences. Children engaged in socio-dramatic play may be found assigning roles to others in a play scenario, storytelling through puppets, or creating environmental print. One benefit of this kind of role-play is the development of empathy skills. For example, when a child acts out the part of the ‘busy mother’ or the ‘fire-fighter’ they may have to express a point of view that is different from theirs which promotes perspective-taking. In addition, whether socio-dramatic play takes place in same-age or multi-age settings, children learn to establish acceptable behaviors, cooperate with each other, take turns, and play by the rules. Finally, dramatization of commonly observed scenarios, such as a visit to the doctor, can encourage use of technical vocabulary (stethoscope, prescription) as well as promote reading and writing behaviors (writing a prescription, reading a vision chart), which improve overall language and literacy skills.
Having worked with preschoolers and kindergarteners in multiple settings, I believe that socio-dramatic play provides a great opportunity to develop literacy behaviors and improve social competence. Not only does it have the kind of flexibility to adapt to learning goals, it is also a great way to integrate learning across developmental areas. Parents and educators can improve the quality of socio-dramatic play settings by:
- Using literacy props in the classroom such as story puppets, stuffed animals, and sign boards and books.
- Providing books related to different play themes — such as books about what fire-fighters do, how astronauts live in space and how animals live in the wild.
- Providing suggestions for high-quality literacy play-based experiences. For example in one study researchers in an early childhood classroom found that the amount of reading and writing behaviors increased when children set up a play ‘office.’
- Increasing the emphasis on environmental print such as creating maps in a pirate-themed play, or price boards in a shop-themed play.
- Acting out stories read in story time and discussing alternative endings, difficult language and character motivations. For example ‘You were acting the part of the wolf in Red Riding Hood. Can you tell me why you think he was wearing grandma’s clothes?’
- Providing adequate time for children to develop the stories and roles in their play.
- Discussing the planning and implementation of play and encouraging children to sort arguments and negotiate roles.
Ontario. (2010). The full-day early learning kindergarten program: 2010–11. Toronto], ON: Ministry of Education.
Stegelin, D. A. (2005). Making the case for play policy: Research-based reasons to support play-based environments. YC Young Children, 60(2), 76.