The 5 early Literacy Practices: PLAY

 “This post is one in a series about the five literacy practices of sing, play, read, talk,  and write.”

Play has been called “the work of children” and for good reason! It is through play that children learn to interact in their environment, discover their interests, and acquire speech, language, new vocabulary, and cognitive, motor, and social-emotional skills (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2007) –  so we can say that play is not just a game. Play is a learning process!

By playing, children learn problem solving, logical thinking, and creativity, among other skills, in a safe, fun and caring environment.

When we play we learn how to be. There is not a “101” course on how to be a human being. We learn through interactions with our peers and adults. Kids have those interactions by playing. Let me give you an example. A little while ago I was visiting a playgroup and a specific interaction caught my attention. It was a mother with her 3 year-old girl (we will call this one, girl A). Girl A was playing with a kitchen set. She made some “food” for her mom and after the mom was done “eating,” she took the “dirty” dishes and began to wash them. Another girl (girl B), around the same age, offered to help her wash the dishes. Girl A washed the dishes and let them “dry” on a “drying mat.” Girl B put the dirty dishes in a “dishwasher.”

Girl A couldn’t understand what girl B was doing, and she told her that was not the way of doing dishes. She even said to her, “Tu mama no te enseño a lavar los platos?”(Your mom didn’t teach you to wash dishes?)

Let me explain some things: girl B didn’t speak Spanish, so she didn’t understand what was going on. Girl A‘s mother never taught her how to do dishes; she just learned it by observing her mom. Girl A’s mom, watching all this, just told her: “Some people do dishes in a different way”. Girl A apparently understood and was fine with it. (After that I saw her putting dishes on the dishwasher.)

Through this experience during dramatic play, these two girls learned two different ways of doing dishes, two different customs, as well as tolerance, acceptance, and problem solving in a safe and caring environment.

Through play, children put into practice what they have learned and this is their way to process their learning.

Children learn by playing in different ways during their childhood. It all depends on their age and the developmental milestones they reach.

The information on each stage was extracted from the article “The Importance of Play in the Development of Language Skills, 2013 (Atlanta Speech School)

Infants (Babies) (Birth to 18 month)

They learn through their interactions with objects and people around them. When they shake a rattle or an egg shaker by moving their arms, they connect the sound with the object, and this is how they begin to understand that their arms are tools for interacting with the environment.

When they begin to reach and grasp with a purpose, they soon discover the cause-effect relationship. They also began non-verbal communication with their play partners (parents/caregivers) through eye contact and facial expressions. When the baby makes sounds and receives a reciprocal interaction (imitation of the sound) you are creating a foundation for social skill development.

Toddlers (18 months to 36 months)

While playing make-believe (pretending game-dramatic play) toddlers begin to imitate the language and behavior of others. When you play with your toddler, a simple game like rolling a ball back and forth, your child begins to develop the idea of taking turns, an important skill to have for conversations.

Preschooler (3 – 5 years old)

Since they have a larger vocabulary, they will have a more complex imaginary play. They will be more interested in pretend play and cooperative play. They will love to play with peers and their parents/caregivers. Through their make-believe games, they can be doctors, firefighters, veterinarians, parents, anything they want. They will translate their understanding of this profession or role through a game.

By watching them do this type of game, we can learn their perspective, frustrations or reactions toward things. They feel free to express themselves.


Language development and play

  • Playing with your child will promote a closer relationship and allows you to provide a model of values and behaviors that are important to you, your family and community.
  • Observe your child and learn his/her interests. Engage them in activities they like; this will allow a greater opportunity for language acquisition (learning new words).
  • Playing should always be fun; that will make learning easy and a desire to go back to that experience.
  • Play is an excellent opportunity for your child to give meaning to words and actions and also to build new vocabulary. You can model language and correct grammar through play. For example, the child says, “Car” and the caregiver says, “Yes, that’s a big car”.

To find more resources, visit the Colorado Early Learning Developmental Guidelines website:

Pamela Mejia de Rodriguez
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