The importance of children's play and talk

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The first example is of J's first experience of mark making with felt tip pens and on speaking to the parents this was his first experience of using any drawing implements.

This activity came about from J's own initiation his interest was gained when he saw his sister with the pens she was sat beside him drawing a picture of what she described as a rabbit, J watched for a while then grabbed at the pen his sister asked ‘Do you want to draw a picture ‘, J made a sound his sister gave him a blank piece of paper and a felt tip pen. J made marks on the paper looking up at his sister every so often who would say ‘wow J that's fantastic, good boy' J would smile then continue to make more marks, J's sister gave him more colours J tried to pick all the pens up at once but dropped them all, he picked one up made a mark then tried another he continued this action for the duration of the activity. The activity was initiated and endedby J which lasted around 30 minuets.

The second example is again by J and his first mark making and exploration with paint.

This activity was adult initiated, the adult introduced a large rectangular blank canvas and different coloured paints with different size paint brushes. J was unsure at first and kept his distance, however moved closer and closer firstly poked the canvas with his finger, he picked up a brush exploring it with his mouth and then fingers, he put the brush on the table then put his finger in a paint pot he looked at his finger touching it with his thumb he put his hand on the table when he lifted his hand off he looked at the mark the paint had made poking his finger in the mark moving it around this made the mark bigger, J put his finger on the canvas the adult said ‘ what that' ‘look it's J's finger', J put his finger back in the paint moving it around the canvas. The adult picked the large brush up handing it to J ‘do you want to try the brush' J took the brush he explored it with is mouth screwing his face up as the brush touched his tongue, ‘ewwwww' said the adult pulling his face ‘put it in there' pointing to the pot of paint. J looked at the pot he dipped the edge of the large brush in the paint then dragged the brush across the canvas he continued this action a few times the picked the smaller brush putting it into different colours using a dabbing motion he made more masks on the canvas , he held the brush in one hand then placed the other onto the canvas lifted it up looking at his hand which was covered in different coloured paint he moved it closer to his face dropped the brush poked his painted hand moving his finger around the paint , J looked at his finger then put both hands together pulling them apart them put one on the canvas looking at the adult smiling ‘wow J that's J's hand' J squealed then poked at the canvas with his painted finger. J put his hand on his face the adult laughed J then put both hands on his face laughing the adult said ‘come on J we better get you cleaned up' .

Because of the age of J the activity was more about exploration and investigation and the introduction to new experiences.

Clay 1979; Goodman 1973; Smith 1971 cited in Barrat-Pugh 2000 challenged the developmentalist view of literacy drawing upon the 1970 research into how children learn to read and write their suggestions were that reading and writing are not isolated skills that can be taught but however the child is an active participant and the process is ongoing from birth. Arguing that reading, writing and oral language developments are interrelated, emerging over time through participation in literacy events. The childs family and community are central to this process as they provide experiences that facilitate emergent literacy.

The importance of children's play and talk is recognised in the Government's literacy and numeracy strategies where a commitment is stated to using these for reception children in their first year of school (Wood, E. 2004). The Association for Early Childhood Education recommends that practitioners make allowances for the fact that children learn at different levels and so activities need to be well planned and organised, thus providing opportunities for different children to shine in different contexts. The Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage in England also recommends a play-based curriculum. The practioner needs to be able to plan and resource challenging learning environments and to support children's learning through planned play activity. The practitioner also needs to be able to extend and support the spontaneous play of children and help develop their language and communication skills through play. The practitioner also needs to ensure the child's continuity and progression (Wood, E. 2004:20). Moyles et al (2001) have argued that a learning environment that is dependent on play leads onto more mature forms of knowledge, skills and understanding. There is evidence to suggest that through play children develop high levels of verbal skill and creative problem solving capabilities.

Practitioners need to be resourceful and have a tightly organised environment if they are to integrate play into the curriculum and the child becomes a powerful player in constructing their own learning (Malaguzzi, 1993). In order that the process is meaningful the teacher needs to understand how and what the child thinks and knows, and to be able to engage with this (Wood, 2004). Vygotsky (1933) argued that what children learn and how they learn it is driven by the social experiences and social interactions that they encounter and the development of their thinking occurs as a result of the interaction between themselves, their environment, and more experienced others. Thus, learning is a collaborative process, practitioners need to be aware however of the power relationships that exist in educational settings. Children have no control over the world they enter, of the pre-existing cultural practices or of the power of the expectations of others, particularly their parents and teachers (MacNaughton, 2004). Training for those who intend to work in the early years sector should not neglect the issue of power or the contexts in which it operates.

In English preschool classrooms, learning by being active and interactive, by exploring the environment, has gained universal status (Curtis, 1998). Dewey advocated that children learn best by exploring and manipulating their environment. Isaacs (1933) also emphasized the importance of learning by doing. She wrote that play is not the only means by which children come to discover the world; the whole of their spontaneous activity creates their psychic equilibrium in the early years.

Communication, Language and Literacy includes the child to read a variety of different books, being able to communicate in different ways, such as facial expressions and eye contact used in non verbal communication. Children should be able to communicate in order for them to participate in their society. Children should also receive simple reading tasks and texts and writing for different purposes. Drake, (2001)

A study carried out by Halls (1987) in a literate home corner, showed that where paper, pencils, newspapers, planners, telephone directories, cookery books and catalogues were added as part of the environment. During the four hour days of this study, children were engaged in 290 literacy events. For example it was found that the frequency, duration and complexity of children's play with print increased and that the objective encouraged self-generated literacy activity. A particularly interesting finding was that children in the intervention group often transformed the literacy objects into something else. Another example was the cookery books became magic genie books, and newspapers became magazines. Language is a powerful source of signs, and empowers the child to restructure his or her environment, (Taylor and Woods 1998).

There are many ways that children make connections with writing and reading, and many pathways into literacy. Writing and reading can enter young children's lives in a variety of ways. Early experiences with literacy may be initiated by the child or by other people, they may be playful or work-like, and may take place at home, in the neighbourhood or in community settings.

The range and diversity of early literacy experiences suggests that there are many ways that children make connections with writing and reading, and many pathways to literacy.

Literacy development often starts in young children's early symbol using activities: in talking, in play and fantasy, in scribbling and drawing, in pretend reading and writing. Between the ages of 1-5 children learn to use symbols they invent for themselves and those "donated by the culture" (Gardner & Wolf, 1979, p.vii). The use of symbols—which may include words, gestures, marks on paper, objects modelled in clay, and so forth—makes it possible to represent experience, feelings and ideas. Symbols also allow children to go beyond the immediate here and now and to create imaginary worlds

Play consumes much of young children's time and energy, and for many children, play is where writing and reading begin. Play is the arena in which young children make connections between their immediate personal world and activities that are important in the larger social world of family and community, and play is the context in which many children find ways to make culturally valued activities part of their own personal experience. When children play with writing and reading, they are actively trying to use—and to understand and make sense of—reading and writing long before they can actually read and write. When books, paper, and writing material are among the objects children play with, important literacy learning can occur. As they experiment with written language, often in playful ways, children begin to learn what writing and reading are, and what they can do with them. At the same time, children can acquire a range of information and skills related to writing and reading, as well as feelings and expectations about themselves as potential readers and writers. This multifaceted body of knowledge and attitudes constitutes early or "emergent" literacy (Holdaway, 1979; Teale & Sulzby, 1986).

Play appears to have at least two potential links to the development of literacy: First, as a symbolic activity, pretend play allows children to develop and refine their capacities to use symbols, to represent experience, and to construct imaginary worlds, capacities they will draw on when they begin to write and read. Second, as an orientation or approach to experience, play can make the various roles and activities of people who read and write more meaningful and hence more accessible to young children.
In play the focus is on exploring rather than on accomplishing predetermined ends or goals, so there are few pressures to produce correct answers or final products. Play's non literal, not-for-real, "not-for-profit" orientation allows players the freedom to manipulate materials, experiences, roles and ideas in new, creative, experimental, "as if" ways (Bruner, 1977, p.v; Garvey, 1974). Play thus creates a risk-free context in which children do not have to worry about "getting it right" or about "messing up." This freedom may lead children to discover or invent possibilities—new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking about ideas—which may, in turn, lead them to new questions, problems, and solutions. Approaching writing and reading with such an experimental, "as if" attitude may help children realize that written language is something they can manipulate in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. "Playing at writing and reading—by scribbling, drawing, pretending to write, or pretending to read—may serve to open up the activities of writing and reading for children's consideration and exploration (Bruner, 1976; Sutton-Smith, 1979).

While activities like talking, playing, and drawing are closely linked to writing and reading, and while their use often intertwine and overlap, there are no direct or inevitable transitions between earlier—and later—developed symbol systems. Whether and how children make connections between talking, playing, drawing, and writing and reading depends on the children's interests and personalities, on what is available and valued in their particular culture, on how the people around them use writing and reading in their own lives, and how these people initiate and respond to children's writing and reading activities.

In other words, early literacy development does not simply happen; rather, it is part of a social process, embedded in children's relationships with parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, caretakers, and teachers.

Early writing activities tend to be more visible than early reading activities because they involve making something. If given crayons or pencils, children usually begin to scribble around the age of 18 months; they find scribbling interesting because it leaves a visible trace—they have made something that didn't exist before. When children encounter print in their environment, they use this visual information in their scribbling and pretend writing. Marie Clay (1975) has shown that as scribbling develops, it begins to incorporate various features of conventional written language, such as linearity, horizontally, and repetition. As children learn that marks and letters represent or stand for something, they are developing an understanding of what Clay calls the "sign concept"—which is of central importance in learning to write and read.

Robert Gundlach (1982) has argued that beginning writers need to master the functions, uses and purposes of writing; the forms and features of written language; and the processes of writing. Children must learn what writing can do, and, in particular, what they can do with writing.

Early literacy development is closely tied to the specifics of young children's relationships and activities. To these relationships and activities, children bring their curiosity, their interest in communicating and interacting with others, and their inclination to be a part of family and community life. They also bring their desire to use and control materials and tools that they perceive as important to the people around them—their urge to "do it myself." And they bring their willingness to seek help from more proficient writers and readers. When they interact with more competent writers and readers, children serve as "spontaneous apprentices" (in George Miller's phrase), learning about written language and how to use and control it for a range of purposes.

What is the relationship between early experiences with literacy and later, long-term literacy development? There are as yet no definitive answers to this question, but as in other aspects of psychological development, we assume that there is a relationship between early literacy experience and later mature literacy. How this relationship unfolds for a particular child will depend on several factors which interact with one another in complex ways. These include the child's interests, temperament and personality, opportunities at home and in the neighbourhood for writing and reading, as well as the nature and quality of the instruction the child encounters in school.

Even children who do not narrate their play are enacting a narrative with their gestures. It has been shown that children engage in this kind of symbolic play more and in richer ways when they do it with a facilitating adult, usually a parent or caregiver. A typical interaction consists of a young child moving a toy around, guiding the toy or toys through a sequence of actions. Often it is the adult who provides the language that highlights the narrative form embedded within the child's play gestures The Emergence of Story Telling During the First Three YearsBy Susan Engel Bennington College,Bennington, VermontZero to Three Journal, December 1996/January 1997.