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5.3: Using Theories of Play to Orchestrate Intentional Literacy Learning Opportunities

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    illustration of a branch
    Branch icon © Lucy La Croix is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license

    The first part of this chapter discussed how people, materials, and routines/activities shape early childhood classroom environments. The intentional literacy learning opportunities that “float” on top of these ecological dimensions influence children’s emergent literacy practices. In the second part of the chapter, we will focus on how early childhood educators use constructivist and sociocultural play theories, alongside ecological perspectives to prepare, manipulate, and enhance young children’s literacy environments.

    Play remains an essential element of the early childhood classroom context. It is through a child’s intentional exploration and engagement in the world around them that they gain important understandings about their communities and build agency as literate members. Saracho and Spodek (2006) explain, “Play experiences provide young children with opportunities for them to use language in literate ways and to use literacy as they see it practiced” (p. 708). Accordingly, during play, children reenact stories, simple and complex lived experiences (like going to the store and cooking) and even favorite movie or television storylines; in doing so, they use language, reading practices, and writing practices to drive play scenarios forward. Early educators use constructivist and sociocultural perspectives, alongside the ecological perspectives explored in the first part of this chapter, to design relevant and engaging literacy environments for young children to support play experiences. As we will discover, the three theoretical perspectives are not mutually exclusive.

    Rather, their philosophical principles work in complementary ways to support educators’ facilitations of play-based literacy environments.

    5.3a Constructivism and Literacy Play

    A child sits on the floor looking at a book. An arrow points from the book to the child's head. The text in graphic reads: "Constructivist perspectives emphasize changes in a child's internal literacy understandings."
    Figure 5.2 Constructivist Perspectives. Constructivism Perspectives © Leslie La Croix is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license

    As discussed in Chapter 3, constructivist perspectives recognize children gain important insights about how the world works when they are engaged in rich play experiences. Play supports children’s literacy understandings through a process of construction, during which children are acting on the world based on their existing understandings or schemes (Rosko et al., 2010). Framed as a stage theory, constructivist perspectives reason children progressively acquire more sophisticated logic patterns as they interact with their environment. As children develop, they use memory to engage with their environment in increasingly sophisticated ways.

    Play opens important spaces for children to practice emerging understandings about the world (Roskos et al., 2010). During play, children use object substitution and meta-play talk to reenact and reimagine observed events from their own lives. Review the excerpt from the running record captured by Elise, the early childhood educator, who observed Prashant making the naan to see how children reenact literate experiences in their pretend play.

    Figure 5.3 Running Record of Prashant’s Naan (1)

    Date: 4/18/2020

    Student: Prashant Center: Home Living Time: 9:42 – 9:47

    Prashant carries the recipe book to the stove singing to himself, “Naan, naan, naan.” He sifts through the pages of recipes with pictures of his friends enjoying their favorite foods until he finds the recipe he is looking for. On his recipe page, Prashant included a hand drawing of his family eating naan together at home. Pointing to text at the top left he says, “First, I have to put in flour.” […] He picks up a spoon and begins stirring the ingredients in the pot. Then, Prashant scoops the mix into a pan on the stove singing, “Cook, cook, cook.” Prashant pulls naan from the stove top and places the pan on the table. He reaches into a small block basket on the shelf and puts several rainbow blocks on a tray. Taking the platter to the table he calls out, “Naan for sale, come have a piece of naan!” […]

    In Prashant’s case, both object substitution and meta-play talk promote his exploration of important literacy skills. Renaming objects (e.g. “naan” instead of “blocks”) and offering running narrations (e.g. “Naan, naan, naan” and “cook, cook, cook”) bring to life pretend play scenarios, making them “real.” Using other objects to represent items not readily accessible is considered an important first step toward understanding that letters are symbolic representations of oral language. Similarly, meta-play talk provides ongoing narration of children’s actions and propels storylines forward. Indeed, young children frequently narrate and negotiate their play, even when playing independently. Through their oral narrations, children negotiate literacy enriched spaces and use environmental tools to represent their understandings about how the world works.

    Additionally, in Prashant’s Naan play scenario, we see examples of how dramatic play affords children opportunities to explore concepts of sequencing, to practice procedural activities, and to recognize text as informative resources. We also see Prashant practicing important language skills such as vocabulary usage, word order, gesturing, and soliciting conversational partners. Prashant strengthens his cognitive skills and practices using his prior knowledge in play. The exact sequence of events for making a naan and the ingredients may be creatively imagined, but it is hard to overlook that Prashant’s focused and intentional reenactments mirror common kitchen and literacy practices. Pretend play opportunities reinforce children’s current conceptualizations regarding how and why people use language and support their emerging literacy skills.

    5.3b Sociocultural Perspectives and Literacy Play

    Two children stand at a table. One child offers a toy to the other child. A two-way arrow goes between the two children's heads. A two-way arrow goes from the toy in one child's hand to the other child's head. A two-way arrow goes from the toy in the child's hand to his head. The text in the image reads: Socio-cultural perspectives emphasize learning is grounded in children's intentional interactions with other learners, educators, and materials.
    Figure 5.4 Sociocultural Perspectives. Sociocultural Perspectives © Leslie La Croix is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license

    Sociocultural perspectives also recognize that innovative play exchanges promote children’s emerging literacies. When children play, they use language, gestures, and materials in their environment to sustain play narratives. Play intentions and goals inspire meaningful actions and children embrace flexible representation of objects to drive their play narratives forward (Roskos et al., 2010). For example, Prashant approached his play session with the intention to make bread. He accessed materials to represent real-world items and used language to reenact the preparation process and later sale of the naan.

    Play provides a setting for children to use their creative thinking and to communicate their thoughts. Accordingly, sociocultural perspectives encourage educators to consider how children’s interactions with objects and more experienced people, including peers, educators, and parents, promote cognitive development (Roskos et al., 2010). Thought and meaning support children’s interactions with playmates and objects to nurture literacy development. Prashant’s thoughts on making the naan and the meaning of the item he was producing (it should be made and then shared), supported opportunities for Prashant to interact with his classmates. Vygotskian perspectives consider play “a strong social ‘push’ from the outside” compelling children to develop more sophisticated interpretations of how their world works (Roskos et al., 2010, p. 71). It is within complex sociocultural exchanges that children’s narrative expressions develop and how changes in children’s understandings occur (Nicolopoulou, 2005).

    Let’s return to Elise’s running record capturing Prashant’s play episode making naan to understand how children’s literacy development is also nurtured via their direct interactions with people in their environment.

    Figure 5.5 Running Record of Prashant’s Naan (2)

    Date: 4/18/2020

    Student(s): Prashant + Desmond Center: Home Living

    Time: 9:42 – 9:47

    […] Prashant pulls the naan from the stove top and calls out, “Naan for sale, come have a piece of naan!” Desmond hears Prashant’s invitation and sits down at the table near the kitchen area. Desmond says, “I would like to buy a piece of naan. What kind of naan do you have?”

    End memo

    In this case, Prashant expresses his desire to continue his pretend play narrative by eliciting the support of a peer. Enlisting the play of others into the cooking episode will require the two children to work together to nurture the narrative forward. As their play scenario develops, the children will adhere to specific rules to ensure the meaning of their play is maintained. In this manner, pretend play helps children develop an understanding of different points of view. Miss Elise, the educator, takes advantage of the shifting storyline negotiated between Prashant and Desmond to draw the children’s attention to another kind of text people frequently use in restaurants to help them make decisions, a menu. The educator’s casual language prompt provides an intentional literacy scaffold to extend the narrative for the children and supports “meaning-oriented thinking” (Roskos et al. 2010, p. 71).

    5.3c Ecological Perspectives and Literacy Play

    Children stand inside cardboard vehicles getting ready to be part of a parade. One half circular arrow going from bottom to top and one half circular arrow going from top to bottom surround the children standing in the cardboard vehicles. The text reads: Ecological perspectives emphasize leanring is influenced by the opportunities available to children in their environment.
    Figure 5.6 Ecological Perspectives. Ecological Perspectives © Leslie La Croix is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license

    Constructivist perspectives focus on the child’s internal mental constructs, and sociocultural perspectives emphasize the interactional exchanges that enhance a child’s understandings; however, ecological perspectives highlight the role the environment plays in drawing a child into literacy. Literacy-rich play environments allow children to explore “literate ways of thinking” with their peers and use their emergent literacy skills to influence evolving play scenes (Saracho & Spodek, p. 711). Dramatic play opportunities encourage children to recreate life experiences and provide meaningful spaces for children to manipulate literacy materials (e.g., books and writing tools) and grapple with foundational skills that promote children’s literacy (Saracho & Spodek, 2006).

    In “Prashant’s Naan” play scenario, his incorporation of diverse literacy practices (i.e., reading a recipe and creating a menu) is not surprising when we use ecological perspectives to consider the design of this literacy-rich classroom. Both Prashant and Desmond utilized their environment and their understandings of how people interact in different contexts to support their play narrative. We can readily identify the routines (i.e., center time that opened spaces for pretend play and children’s existing schemas of restaurant and cooking rules), materials (i.e., books, cooking utensils and kitchen supplies, paper and markers) and people (i.e., the children and the educator) that collectively influenced the children’s efforts. Educators can positively enhance children’s literacy understandings when they intentionally analyze the environment for opportunities that promote children’s routine interactions with print-rich materials and language-rich experiences.

    As important people in the child’s learning environment, early childhood educators should seek opportunities to scaffold children’s expressions and enactments during dramatic play experiences (Morrow et al., 2013). In Prashant’s play scenario, the educator’s decision to encourage children to bring in a recipe, share it with the class, classify the food by category, and add it to a class recipe book throughout the year established an instructional literacy routine that became a natural part of the children’s classroom environment. This particular literacy experience allowed the educator to add an additional print rich material (i.e., the class recipe book) to the kitchen environment. In this case, the educator recognized the class recipe book would be especially appealing to her learners because it held family and cultural relevance. Experiences like this that strategically blend children’s home and school environments further support children’s literacy development and illustrate how ecological perspectives can be used to highlight the rich literacy practices already supporting children’s understandings in their home environments.

    Three images combined into one. First, A child sits on the floor looking at a book. Constructivist is written across the bottom of the image. Second, Two children stand at a table. One child offers the other child a toy. Socio-cultural is written across the bottom of the image. Third, Children stand inside cardboard vehicles getting ready to be part of a parade. Ecological is written at the bottom of the image.
    Figure 5.7 Developmental Theories. Developmental Theories © Leslie La Croix is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license

    In complementary ways, constructivist, sociocultural, and ecological perspectives invite educators to think strategically about play-filled literacy environments. The perspectives do not need to be considered as competing frameworks: rather, each perspective can be used intentionally to consider how we can manipulate the environment to enhance children’s experiences using their oral language, reading, and writing skills. In the following section, we focus on principles and practices educators use to intentionally orchestrate literacy-rich classroom environments for children that are developmentally and contextually relevant.

    This page titled 5.3: Using Theories of Play to Orchestrate Intentional Literacy Learning Opportunities is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sandra Carrie Garvey (Remixing Open Textbooks with an Equity Lens (ROTEL)) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.