Play, Symbols, and Literacy
Making Transformations Through Play
Dr. Sandra J. Stone is Professor Emeritus at Northern Arizona University. She founded the National Multiage Institute, an international leader in providing professional development for educators from all over the world. At the university, Dr. Stone has taught graduate and undergraduate courses on literacy, play, and multiage education.
Dr. Stone’s publications and research also focus on multiage education, play, and literacy. She is the author of the books Playing: A Kid’s Curriculum (GoodYear Books), Creating the Multiage Classroom (GoodYear Books) and Understanding Multiage Education (Stone & Burriss; Routledge),
She has written multiple articles on play, symbolic play, and literacy and play. Articles on symbolic play and literacy include “Play and early literacy: An analysis of kindergarten children’s scaffolding during symbolic play transformations” in The International Journal of Holistic Early Learning and Development (Stone & Stone, 2015) and “A case for symbolic play: An important foundation for literacy development” in The International Journal of Holistic Early Learning and Development (Stone & Burriss, 2016).
Dr. Stone is past editor for the Journal of Research in Childhood Education and for columns in the journal Childhood Education. She serves on editorial boards for several international research journals. Dr. Stone consults nationally and internationally and is a speaker at international and national education conferences.
Support your child’s amazing journey by providing:
- Plenty of time for your child to play as he/she chooses
- Household objects to “stand for” things
(i.e., paper for money, pans for drums)
- Recycled materials (i.e., changing a box into a boat)
- Open-ended play materials (i.e., blocks)
- Opportunities for your child to transform your living room into a fort, a zoo, or a store
Be careful not to impede your child’s critical brain development by replacing choice play time with supervised activities or valuing a clean room over the messiness of play; choose, rather, to protect and support your child’s incredible journey to think by simply playing.
When you watch your child playing, you may see him changing a stick into a horse, a block into a car, or a box into a boat. As adults, we often smile and think it is so cute – and it is. However, what we do not often understand is that our children are on an amazing journey to be able to hold thoughts and ideas in their brains.
Play researchers call this journey developing abstract thought. Children are not born with abstract thought. Being able to hold thoughts in one’s mind is developed over time. This amazing human capacity is developed naturally through play. When a child uses an object to “stand for” another object in play, the child is using what researchers call symbolic play. Symbolic play is the way a child captures and holds onto “meaning” by having a block “stand for” a car. The play separates the meaning from the block in order to substitute the meaning of a car. Symbols represent things; for example, a dollar sign ($) is a symbol for money. The block is a “symbol” for a car. The block is a “scaffold” or support for the child, so the brain can develop its ability to hold onto thoughts and ideas, its ability to think. Amazing, yes!
Similarly, as your child develops physically, she begins to crawl, stand, and then walk. As she begins to walk, she “holds onto” a scaffold, such as your hands or the furniture. She is “developing her muscles” in order to eventually walk without support.
Likewise, children use play (symbolic play) as a scaffold to “hold onto meaning” as they eventually develop the ability to hold onto thoughts without a support. When children transform objects like a stick into a horse, use a doll to “stand for” a real baby, blocks to “stand for” a tower, or transform themselves into Spiderman or Wonder Woman, the brain is actively engaged in using the process of play to develop its ability to think.
As the child is developing the use of symbols to stand for things through play, letters eventually begin to emerge as “symbols” for things. The letter M on a sign can “stand for” hamburgers, or groups of letters can “stand for” the child’s name. Next, letters can “stand for” sounds. Letters with sounds can now “stand for” words, and eventually words can “stand for” ideas. Children begin using these symbols to read books and to write their own words and ideas as well. The whole process of being able to symbolize, to hold thoughts and ideas in one’s brain, all begins with play.
So next time you see your child playing and pretending a stick is a horse, a block is a car, or a box is a boat, remind yourself that play is the brain’s amazing way of developing its ability symbolize, to think, which eventually enables the child to read and write.