The Power of Pretend Play in Language & Literacy Learning
Myae Han, PhD, is a professor of early childhood education in the department of human development and family sciences at the University of Delaware, where she teaches the course, Play and Human Development. Dr. Han’s research includes play-based intervention to support early language and literacy, an implementation and coaching in early childhood system, and culturally and linguistically diverse children. She is a past president of The Association for the Study of Play (TASP) and the Literacy Development in Young Children (LDYC), a special interest group of the International Literacy Association. She has directed various federal and state funded grant projects including Early Reading First funded by U.S. Department of Education, Early Head Start University Partnership grant, and Child Care Research Partnership grant funded by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Han has published research articles in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Early Education and Development, and the Journal of Research in Childhood Education.
1. Choose a play setting kids are familiar with like a grocery store
2. Provide background knowledge on the setting
3. Ask the children to help create and gather appropriate props for the setting.
4. Create writing opportunities by having the kids make signs for the setting
5. Identify words that are specific to the play setting
6. Let children play and follow their lead
Find more play ideas here!
Imagine yourself acting as a news anchor or a doctor. What would you say and how would you speak? You would probably need to learn some new vocabulary and practice the way news anchors and doctors speak. Adults may not have much opportunity to pretend to be someone else in their daily lives, but for children, pretending comes naturally to them.
Unfortunately, recent evidence suggests that pretend play has been dramatically reduced in society. In 1982, pretend play accounted for 41 percent of preschoolers’ free play while it has dropped to just 9 percent in 2002 (Howes and Wishard, 2004). Sadly, dramatic play areas have been disappearing from many kindergarten classrooms. Considering recent research that shows play DOES make a difference in language learning (Han et al, 2010), we should bring back this wonderful opportunity for learning to our children’s lives both in and outside of schools.
Pretend play (also known as dramatic play or role play) is critical for developing oral language. Researchers discovered that children engaged in pretend play often use higher forms of language than they would use in normal situations.
This makes sense because they are pretending to be someone else, oftentimes, adults. Psychologist Jerome Bruner found that “the most complicated grammatical and pragmatic forms of language appear first in play activity.” This is because the pretend situation stimulates kids’ language development.
In addition, children learn emergent literacy skills during pretend play, specifically learning about the different situations in which reading and writing may be needed. For instance, during pretend doctor play, kids learn that in order to make the patient feel better they must be able to determine what is causing the pain – reading a patient’s chart will help in that regard. Eventually this type of reading gives children authentic motivation to learn reading and writing for age-appropriate purposes. It will be a lot more relevant to write the sign “OPEN” if they pretend they are in a grocery store than if they are asked to write the same word without the context of grocery store. The elements of “fun” and “meaning” are important to unfold the intrinsic learning motivation of children.
Here are some tips for early childhood teachers on how to support pretend play in their classrooms.
- Choose a play setting of children’s interest or a setting that they are familiar with such as the grocery store, restaurant, doctor’s office, etc.
- Provide some background knowledge by reading a book, showing photos, taking a field trip, and/or discussing what it’s like to be in a grocery store/restaurant/doctor’s office, etc.
- Ask the children to help you create and gather appropriate props for the setting.
- Create writing opportunities by making signs with the children. For example, for a restaurant, create signs that have the restaurant’s name, open/close, hours of operation, a special daily menu, and name of waitress/waiter.
- Identify words that are specific to the play setting. Consider both nouns and verbs. When playing with children, use the vocabulary while taking the role of coplayer or play leader. E.g. During doctor play, you may say “Let’s take your temperature with a thermometer” or “This medicine will make you feel better.” However, don’t force children to use new words right away. Kids have a right to accept or reject your offer during the play. This is okay. After multiple exposures to new words and new concepts, they will eventually utilize the new learning when they feel comfortable.
- Be a co-player and a sensitive play leader. Refrain from commenting outside of the play frame or redirecting to teaching. Let the children play and follow their lead.
Most importantly, have fun with the kids! This is your chance to be an actor/actress using your imagination.
Han, M., Moore, N., Vukelich, C., & Buell, M. (2010) Does Play Make a Difference?: How play intervention affects the vocabulary learning of at-risk preschoolers, American Journal of Play. 3(1), 82-105. http://www.journalofplay.org/issues/151/155-does-play-make-difference
Howes, C., & Wishard, A. (2004). Revisiting shared meaning: Looking through the lens of culture and linking shared pretend play through proto-narrative development to emergent literacy. In Children’s play: The Roots of reading, ed. Edward F. Zigler, Dorothy G. Singer, and Sandra J. Bishop-Josef, 143-158.