Raising a Reader through Pretend Play

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If you have an imaginative preschooler at home, chances are you’ve seen how easily children can transform the living room into an elaborate jungle, turn paper scraps into currency, or re-purpose the remote control as a navigation stick for a spaceship.

Pretend play (or imaginary play) refers to a type of play where children accept and assign roles, and then act them out. For a long time it was considered fun but with limited educational value. However, more recent studies have found how pretend play can support early childhood development, including early literacy skills.

Here are some ways you can support your preschooler’s early literacy skills through pretend play:

Add functional print into the mix. Functional print includes things like newspapers, menus, signs, coupons or labelled items. By surrounding your child with functional print during pretend play, you are creating an environment in which your child can interact with print as adults do. Your child will see how texts are used in a variety of different ways. One study showed that classrooms rich in functional print material inspired more literacy-focused pretend play, which resulted in children achieving higher literacy levels.

Re-enact stories. When your child acts out or retells the stories you’ve read together, they’re demonstrating and enhancing their comprehension skills. Encourage your child to act out a story in the right order and take on different roles. This will help them gain an understanding of narrative structure, and consider how different characters have different personalities and motivations.

Choose books that enhance pretend play. Observe what your child likes to do in pretend play. Do they like to pretend to be a doctor, a firefighter, a dancer, or a dinosaur? This gives insight into their interests, which will help you choose books that not only capture their attention but also their imagination, equipping them with more knowledge, vocabulary and material to use in pretend play.

Provide a variety of symbols. During pretend play, a doorstop could become a slithering snake. A slip of paper could become money. By assigning a purpose to different props, your child develops an understanding of symbols. Opportunities to create and use symbols will help your child use other symbols, such as letters and numbers. As they get older, provide writing materials like pencils, crayons and paper to help them create their own symbols to which they can assign meaning.

Role-play with your child. Role-play is a fun and powerful way to expand your child’s vocabulary and encourage their language development. Role-play scenarios involving different characters can introduce new related vocabulary words and encourage your child to use expressive language. For example, if you pretend to be a teacher, include as many related words as possible (e.g. classroom, students, blackboard, desk, books, learning, reading).

The most important thing to remember during pretend play is that it should be fun. Fun matters. It’s what motivates your child to stay engaged, curious, and inventive during play, which enables them to reap a wealth of educational benefits in the process.

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5 activities to support your child’s language development

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Parents play a significant role in encouraging their child’s language development. Most children learn basic listening, speaking, reading and writing skills from birth through to grade three.

Studies show that children who are read to and spoken with regularly during early childhood will have a wider vocabulary and stronger literacy skills overall than those who aren’t. Additionally, there are many fun and simple activities that parents can do with their child to develop and support essential speech and language skills.

1. Storytelling

Storytelling is a great family activity that encourages language development and introduces new vocabulary. Make up stories together with your child including characters, conflict and a happy ending. Sit down to look at family photographs, talking about who is in the photograph, what they were doing and where they were. Ask your child to retell stories and set aside time for regular reading. You can even narrate the day with your child as it unfolds, e.g. “Now we’re going outside to water the flowers. When we finish, we’ll prepare the table for lunch.”

2. Labelling game

Cut pieces of cardboard paper and write the words for common items found around the house. These can include things like furniture, bathroom items, articles of clothing and children’s toys. Read each word aloud and ask your child to place it on top of the correct item. Gradually you can begin writing words for adjectives to describe household items. Include new adjectives that your child may not know and help them find items that can be described using that word. Encourage them to say each word aloud and even think of some of their own adjectives.

3. Picture book spotters

Read picture books with your child and pause to look at and discuss the pictures. Repeat what you have read in the story by pointing out to what is happening in the pictures. Encourage your child to make comments by asking them what else they can spot, e.g. “Big Ted is wearing his red shirt! What else is he wearing on his feet?” “The princess is sitting in the garden. What else can we see in the garden?”

4. Word chain

Building on the words and language your child already uses is an easy way to strengthen their language skills. Cut pieces of cardboard paper and write the words for different nouns and verbs your child is familiar with. Then write the words for different adjectives and adverbs. Help your child to make a ‘word chain’ using one noun or verb and as many adjectives and adverbs as possible. For example, if the word is ‘car’, you may select words like ‘big’, ‘fast’, ‘red’, ‘shiny’ or ‘noisy’ to create a word chain. Building language can also be incorporated into everyday situations. For example, if your child says the word ‘cat’, you can say, ‘soft cat’ or ‘sleepy cat’.

5. Role-playing

Role-playing is a fun and powerful way to expand your child’s imagination and introduce related language and words. Using costumes and props (or imaginary ones!), you can role-play scenarios which involve different characters to introduce related words and stretch your child’s imaginative play skills. For example, if you pretend to be a teacher, include as many related words as possible, e.g. classroom, students, blackboard, desk, books, learning, reading etc.

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