Monday, June 13, 2011

Literacy at Play

Sometimes, a very few words paired together just right can open up a very big idea. This happened for me when I read Lucy Calkins’ statement:
The foundation of literacy is talk and play.

Calkins, a reading and writing teacher at Teachers College at Columbia University (NY), may not have been thinking about museums when she paired talk and play. In doing so, however, she drew together what is the foundation for success in school and life, what children do naturally, and what distinguishes museums from other settings for children. Museums, and children’s museums in particular, offer object rich, multi-sensory, experiential, and social environments that invite conversation and questions, build print and word awareness, and give words substance.

Literacy starts early with talking, listening, noticing and asking questions.
Early Literacy
Early literacy is what young children know and learn about reading and writing before they can actually read and write: speaking, listening, reading, writing, and viewing. These parts of language are all interrelated and are developing at the same time.

Babies start to learn language from the day they are born. From the talking, cooing, smiling, and laughing of parents and caregivers, babies develop meaningful speech. As babies grow and develop, their speech and language skills become increasingly complex.

Everyday children see and interact with print around books, magazines, even grocery lists, long before they start elementary school. A child's growing appreciation and enjoyment of print comes through in recognizing words that rhyme, scribbling with crayons, pointing out street signs, and naming letters of the alphabet. Gradually children combine what they know about speaking and listening with what they know about print and become ready to learn to read and write.

An active, informal learning process emerging from a child’s experiences and experiments with language in everyday, real life settings literacy development continues through about 8 years of age.

Success in School and Life
Early literacy lays the foundation for reading and, consequently, for success in school and life. Before a child can master other subjects or communicate what she’s learned, she needs an ability–as well as interest–to read and write. Evidence indicates three factors play a role in strengthening children’s literacy and language development.
•                  Experience with a more capable literate person. Talking builds literacy. But more language– wider vocabulary, talking about things, and being listened to–is key to positive literacy development. Parents especially are in a position to encourage language. They can point out words in the environment, answer questions, and explain the meaning of words. They model the importance of reading, the value of questions, and how to find answers.
•                  Direct engagement with a wide range of experiences and contexts while young. By interacting with varied materials, objects, and processes, children develop first-hand knowledge that is the basis for understanding what they read. A wide range of contexts–home, school, museum, zoo, library, outdoors, friends’ houses–with a wide range of materials allows children to incorporate new ideas into existing understandings about the world.
•                  Something of interest and that serves the child’s purpose. Something must be worth exploring, discovering and talking about. Something novel, something favorite, something beautiful, or something unexpected generates excitement, invites more words and new words; stimulates questions; invites answers; and urges children to look things up.

Museums for Talk and Play
Museums don’t teach reading; and it’s hard to find authentic interactive experiences related to punctuation, spelling, or writing reports. Museums are, however, very fortunate to combine the conditions that encourage literacy and language development for the young learners they serve.

A love of language, stories, and books is easily shared.
Children’s love of and growing competence with language are undeniable assets. Think of a baby’s delight as she points at and names objects. Who hasn’t joined the fun as a child rhymes words? Or been astounded by a child’s use of big words, dinosaur names, or the technical terms for construction vehicles? Parents often relate a child’s vigilance at a skipped word while listening to a favorite book. Or think about children making up words, developing codes, or making signs for forts. Naming objects, rhyming words, print and word awareness, and comprehension are all literacy skills children delight in and play with.

•                  Museums are social settings with a large contingent of capable literate people. Staff, volunteers, parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers, and older siblings have a high presence in exhibits and programs. In fact, probably the adult - child ratio in a children’s museum is higher than in any other setting except an infant care environment. During a museum visit, members of family, school, and community groups describe and name objects, listen, offer definitions, share information, read text, and look up information, demonstrating a wide range of literacy skills.
Physical and narrative scaffolding is helpful during play.

If a museum intends to encourage literacy development among its visitors, it can find ways to engage adults (and older playmates) with developed literacy skills. Step one is building literacy awareness and an understanding of literacy development among staff and volunteers. Training in literacy behaviors prepares staff to encourage literacy during play: describe objects in rich language, ask open-ended questions, define terms, record children’s words, and introduce vocabulary that children can use. Prepared staff can scaffold (provide support for children’s use of vocabulary, use literacy elements like signs during play, etc.) and model scaffolding for parents and caregivers.

Print everywhere in unexpected places (Minnesota Children’s Museum)
•                  Museum environments are dynamic, visually rich, and offer diverse opportunities for engagement with words and language. They are also full of environmental clues that convey that language is important, that words communicate messages, and that what words say is interesting. Upon entering the museum, children and adults find prominent print announcing exhibits, museum hours, and prices. Signs give directions pointing to restrooms, elevators, and stairs. There are places to sit, watch, and talk, to read or look at books. Walls may be embellished with quotes or floors may carry messages. Museum need to choose their words carefully.

Exhibits are often places where language is at work and play. Children explore bookstores as well as grocery stores; work at the printing area; or stop at a post office. In these and other areas literacy materials inspire activities: deliver the mail to stores; write letters; and check grocery lists, recipes, and daily specials. Literacy materials extend play in the building area: paper, pencils, stickers, books, pictures, rulers, posters, popsicle sticks, other sign-making materials, and construction drawings. Every area is an opportunity for carefully selected props and objects­–scoops, funnels, sieves, mirrors, molds, and magnets–to give targeted words, concepts, and ideas substance and meaning.

Text Rain (Camille Utterback)
The expressive possibilities of language come through in children’s artwork, installations that invite motion like Camille Utterback’s Text Rain, and the delights of book inspired spaces like the stairwell at Minnesota Center for Book Arts . In addition to wall panels with text, signs may rhyme as they do in Tot Trails at Port Discovery. Word play can take many forms from silly songs sung at Big Fun, during preschool Tuesdays, or in a spontaneous game of Simon Says.

•                  Most people agree. Museums are interesting places with unusual and sometimes rare objects that spark curiosity and invite exploration (as well as discussion). Multiple spaces, varied exhibit settings, diverse topics, unusual structures and activities, and changing programs enable children to explore preferences, pursue interests, make choices, and build on previous experiences.

For a young child a growing sense of “me” drives many preferences: my name favorite color, my favorite foods, story, or animal. This interest inspires shopping in the grocery store and naming favorite foods or playing with the bunny (puppy, or bird) puppet. But for all children, what they know and like that serves their purpose during play has meaning and value. Children’s interests provide ample and important cues for the museum to select activities that allow children to shape their play experiences.

Imaginative (aka fantasy and creative) play is important for a rich experiential mix. In child-directed imaginative play, children’s use of language is central to creating pretense. As they discuss what will happen and how each person will act out their role, they create pretend scenarios and play scripts in which objects and children “stand for” the role of someone or something else. While, considerable oral language is involved, the significant literacy event is children’s ability to use words, gestures, and mental images to symbolically represent actual objects, events, and actions. A child transforms a block into a radio or pretends to knock on a non-existent door. A length of fabric stands for a river, a box becomes a treasure chest. Abundant and varied objects, non-specific props, environmental clues, space, and a time to imagine invite many possible pretend scenarios.

Adults and bigger playmates have a role in this play. Initially they may provide some support as a scenario takes off; they may introduce new words about possible roles and what characters can say; and they may suggest making signs or other importing text devices children are familiar with.   

Language also unfolds as children explore materials, investigating the properties and possibilities of materials such as light, clay, wire, paper, and plant materials. As children shape, combine, and transform materials, they talk about, describe, ask about, and discover similarities and differences. Scaffolding with questions and parallel language, probing for details, and helping children draw connections, adults can build on and guide children’s interests, advancing exploration with richer language. This may include writing down children’s words. Children are fascinated with the process of having their words written down on paper and discovering that writing is “talk” written down.

Making an Impact
With concerns about literacy in many communities and basic literacy a designated 21st century skill, the talk and play match-up points to a significant opportunity for museums to be recognized and valued resources their community. Museums have a ready starting point: the presence of literacy conditions, an audience of children who love language, and parents and caregivers deeply invested in their children’s future successes. 

Museums can capitalize on child’s growing competence with language and encourage specific literacy behaviors and language skills. Making an impact on literacy development, however, requires a museum's firm commitment–but a worthwhile one. By broadening and deepening its knowledge of literacy development, developing an expertise in talk and play, and building on its existing strengths, museums can expand and enrich the literacy options for many of the children and adults they serve and their communities.

Some resources for getting a start follow.

•                  Hart, B. and Risley, T.  (1995) Meaningful Differences in Everyday Parenting and Intellectual Development in Young American Children. Baltimore: Brookes.
•                  Nicolopoulou, A., J. McDowell, and C. Brockmeyer. (2006). Narrative play and emergent literacy: Storytelling and story-acting meet journal writing. In Dorothy Singer, R. Michnick Golinkoff and K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.) Play=Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. Oxford University Press: New York.
•                  Paley, V. (2004). A child’s work: The importance of fantasy play. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
• Pickett, Linda. (1998). Literacy Learning During Block Play. Journal of Research in Childhood Education. Vol. 12 No. 2. Association for Childhood Education International: Olney, MD.
•                   Stone, S.J. and W. Stone. Symbolic Play and Emergent Literacy. Retrieved June 12, 2011 at


  1. I've just posted a Literacy Development Framework on "My Presentations" to the right on this page. I developed this for the Minneapolis Central Library Children's Library several years ago; they have been very interested in having this shared broadly. The Framework serves as a tool for building awareness of literacy development and for enhancing literacy-based experiences and environments for children. Please download it and use it and let me know in what ways you found it helpful.

    1. Is the Literacy Development Framework still available? I cannot find it on your page. Thanks!

    2. You're right, My Presentations" are no longer here. I'm sorry about that. Contact me by email : and I'll send you the PDF.