How Play Enhances Early Literacy Development

(Children playing in the grass –

Today I want to draw out some of the practical points in Ying Liu’s 2008 paper about play and early literacy development. This article has some helpful background and foundational information as well as detailed information in how play contributes to various aspects of development.

In a future post, I will discuss more about specific ideas for implementing literacy-related play activities in our programs and how we can specifically engage play for a productive purpose. But for now, let’s take a look at different kinds of play and why they’re important to children and to our library setting.

Why play? 

Liu describes Segal’s interpretation of the role of play in literacy development. Segal’s word picture is that of a tree. The roots of the tree are the child’s secure attachment to a parent or caregiver – a secure place from which to explore. The trunk of the tree is the child’s development of play during his or her growth and maturation – the different kinds and stages of play develop the child’s cognitive and developmental capabilities. The branches of the tree and its fruit are the benefits of play – the many ways that play promotes social development, learning, literacy, and school readiness.

From this standpoint, we have the opportunity to participate in each of these levels of development with children in our library programs and in our community. Consider that each of these parts of the tree correspond to something we can promote in our storytimes: the pleasant experience shared by parent and child enhances the bond; the types of play we can encourage enhances the opportunities to experience play; and the particular lessons learned by our children in playtime enhance the specific points of development we can help promote in our participants.

Let’s look at specific kinds of play and how each of them relates to literacy and the library program.

Dramatic play (AKA pretend play, imaginative play)

  • What is it? Dramatic play is a kind of play where children act out roles or scenarios. If you’ve ever watched children play in a toy kitchen, you might see them prepare, serve, and maybe even clean up a whole lunch for each other with the toy food. That’s dramatic play, and it can involve any scenario the children can invent, and also can include the use of costumes, food items, puppets, animals, and other props.
  • How does it reinforce literacy and learning? Dramatic play involves a number of skills that we might not realize are important until we put them in context. Liu points out that dramatic play is both the most common type of interactive play among children, and it is complex. Language makes up the symbolism inside dramatic play – children use words to describe objects, build vocabulary skills around those objects, and describe what’s happening in their play. “Metalinguistic awareness” is how children become aware of the way that language is used, and dramatic play develops this. “Functional language” is another concept that is developed in dramatic play, and it refers to the language that we use maneuvering our everyday lives.
  • How can we incorporate dramatic play in our libraries? Probably much the same way we incorporate it into early childhood classroom settings – by using props to spark the creativity in children and let them run with it. So for example, in storytime, if we read The Three Little Pigs, and we set up a play station for center time with some blocks and some animals, we might see children in that station instinctively retelling the story (or making up their own version) with the materials we set out for them. We can use simple and readily available toys and materials to open up avenues for dramatic play. Some libraries set up play centers in their children’s areas, providing a natural opportunity for children to enter into play and literacy activities simultaneously.
  • Tell me more about this. See this article from Scholastic: What is dramatic play? 

Social play (AKA cooperative play)

  • What is it? Social play is simply interactive play among children. Social play can negotiate and reinforce social rules, encourage cooperation and collaboration, and encourage children to negotiate questions and solve problems together. Younger children tend to play in parallel and begin more interactive social play at three or four years of age, but even parallel play is observant and negotiated among children.
  • How does it reinforce literacy and learning? Social play is largely language-based. Language describes the rules and purposes of the game, negotiates questions, problem-solves, allows children to express themselves and their feelings, and creates opportunities for symbolic representation of objects and ideas.
  • How can we incorporate social play in our libraries? Social play is a largely instinctive form of play among children. Offering open space and basic objects to children to enable their play is sometimes all we need to do to encourage open-ended, child-directed play. If children are behaving shyly or not engaging, we can have a ready game to start ourselves – including games that use minimal materials, such as “hot potato” or “duck duck goose”. Social play also overlaps with other forms of play in that other types of play can be inherently social when other children are involved.
  • Tell me more about this. See this article: Characteristics of social play.

Symbolic play

  • What is it? Symbolic play is a kind of play where children employ symbols – where one object or idea stands in for another. Playing house or school are examples of symbolic play.
  • How does it reinforce literacy and learning? Pretend and make-believe allow children to explore roles and ideas, to try out ideas and make and remake things, to use their imaginations and stretch their creativity, and to solidify in their thinking how one thing can represent another.
  • How can we incorporate symbolic play into our libraries? Use play-dough to make a birthday cake for  birthday themed storytime; turn our chairs into a train to ride to different settings for our stories; set up open-ended play centers so children can make up their own symbolic games. This creates numerous opportunities to reinforce our storytime themes and selections with play activities.
  • Tell me more about this. See this article from California DOE: Symbolic play.

Art and music

We mustn’t forget art and music as sources of literacy learning – music and art are not only forms of intelligence in themselves, but further reinforce language concepts. Art can be used in our programs to reinforce concepts in our storytimes, and music engages multiple areas of the brain and can encourage memory.

  • Using art in library storytime. Many, many websites have been established to give us ideas about simple craft projects we can do that are related to books. And we mustn’t discount the usefulness of simple art and craft supplies to trigger creative and symbolic thinking, spontaneous writing, learning of colors and other concepts. Art doesn’t have to have an end product – it can just be something that is done spontaneously and experimentally; see this blog post: Process and product art.
  • Using music in library storytime. Music in storytime reinforces rhythm and rhyme, is engaging and fun, can contribute to language development, and encourages interaction between parent and child during storytime. See this blog post: Why your library needs music.

Want an even more detailed explanation of play and early learning? Here’s a great academic paper to read with lots of case descriptions of specific play endeavors and how they promote literacy development: Developing literacy through play.




Liu, Y. (2008). Understanding play and literacy development in the young child. Jackson State University Researcher, 21(4), 14-50.


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