Why You Should be Promoting Playtime at Your Library
In the children’s area of the Dwight Foster Library in Fort Atkinson, WI, a small table serves as a makeshift veterinary clinic where children bring a variety of stuffed animals to be treated. Imaginary thorns are plucked from paws, “injured” legs are wrapped and shots are given — a favorite among the children. Seated on the floor a few feet away, a grandmother talks with her infant granddaughter about the different colors in the block towers they’re building and knocking over. The room is filled with the squeals of joy that playtime brings and a constant rich dialogue about the scenes being played out. These make-believe games are a delightful experience for children, but something momentous is also happening — important connections are forming in the brains of the young participants, connections that will have a big impact on their future success in school and beyond.
According to researchers, children’s participation in unstructured playtime is crucial to laying a foundation for literacy success. During dramatic play, children practice many of the same skills they need to become emergent readers: visualization, narrative development, vocabulary acquisition, representation (this stands for that) and meta-play talk (verbalizing the direction of the play: “Pretend your dog is hurt and you have to take him to the vet”). These developmental skills parallel those that children will be using as they begin to interact with and comprehend text. Through play, children learn how stories are structured, who the characters are, and how problems are played out and resolved (Christie and Roskos, 2009).
One of the most important early literacy skills that play promotes is language development. A multitude of studies have shown that early exposure to a range of vocabulary has a direct impact on children’s readiness for kindergarten. Unfortunately, many children in poverty sorely lack this early exposure. According to a report commissioned by the nonprofit organization Jumpstart, first-graders from lower-income families have as little as half the vocabularies of their higher-income counterparts. Rarely does the gap close for low-income preschoolers as they age. “Studies conducted by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University show that of 50 children having trouble learning to read in kindergarten, 44 of them will still be having trouble in third grade. In fact, low achievement as early as fourth grade is a powerful predictor of high school and college graduation rates, as well as lifetime earnings” (Jumpstart, 2009).
As a free community resource, libraries are instrumental in supplementing early literacy instruction for families, especially for children in low-income households. Librarians play a crucial role in fostering literacy development by providing engaging programming, storytimes with embedded literacy instruction, and a print-rich environment where children can develop early literacy skills through stories, crafting and play. Storytime programs in particular provide an ideal opportunity for librarians to model for caregivers simple ways they can enhance interactions with their children to boost the benefits of playtime and encourage skill acquisition.
Parent and caregiver tips can be integrated into storytimes through short instructional asides that are woven into the narrative of the storytime. For example: “Let’s sing a song about boats called ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat.’ Caregivers, you can change the words to this familiar tune to sing about trucks, dogs, or anything your child is interested in.” Craft time offers another chance for librarians to directly address caregivers and offer simple tips: “Now that you’ve made your wolves, you can take them home to play ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ Caregivers, you can help your little ones learn new words by talking about all the goodies Little Red brings to her grandmother and work on storytelling skills by acting out and telling the story together.”
Librarians can also offer support by simply validating that the daily interactions caregivers are already having with their children are powerful teaching tools. Parents often feel that they have to use flashcards or other extras, but this over-stimulation isn’t necessary, says child development expert Pat Wolfe. In an interview with Be Inkandescent Magazine, Wolfe said, “The bottom line is that there is no proof extra stimulation is necessary for cognitive or social growth … Educators need to explain to parents that the human brain is innately curious and designed to learn. Young children are driven to master their world. Hands-on play is best because it gives children a chance to explore their own interests with the support of involved adults” (Gibbs, 2010).
Whether it’s playing a simple game like peek-a-boo or a more elaborate one like restaurant, playtime for infants and toddlers offers caregivers a valuable learning opportunity. A child who is encouraged to scribble or draw a customer’s food order is not only practicing prewriting skills but also being given a context for writing and how it is used in real-world situations. Libraries and librarians are in the unique position to provide resources to educate caregivers on the importance of play through modeling, helpful tips, and validation of child/caregiver interactions. By taking small steps to infuse daily routines with early literacy practice, librarians and caregivers can help close the literacy gap — all through the power of play!
To learn more about designing an engaging play environment at your library, read Want to Make Your Library the Go-to Place for Playtime? Here’s How!