Creating a Playful, Literacy-Rich Preschool Environment
Teacher educators and former preschool teachers Christina Mirtes and Jessica Grimone-Hopkins offer tips on how to create a learning environment that supports literacy development in preschool. They ground their examples and recommendations in their experiences as lead teachers for over 15 years and as professors working closely with preservice and in-service preschool educators. Their piece complements the theme of Teaching Young Children’s Winter 2024 issue, which is focused on literacy practices in preschool settings. Visit NAEYC.org/tyc/winter2024 to learn more about how to foster early literacy development for all preschoolers.
Early literacy includes a number of key areas, including reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Fostering literacy in the earliest years helps children learn to read and write in their later schooling. Research highlights the impact of activities such as reading aloud, rhyming, singing, and talking with young children—beginning from birth—on literacy and language learning in childhood and beyond (Sinclair et al. 2019; Lawson-Adams, Dickinson, & Donner 2022). Further, research shows that play supports early literacy development (Nicolopoulou et al. 2015).
Early childhood educators can intentionally plan and implement playful activities that support early literacy. The following are five ways they can do so, with examples and vignettes drawn from our (the authors’) teaching experiences.
1. Communicate the importance of playful, joyful practices to foster literacy learning.
Ms. Mya meets with the administration of the elementary school where she works to discuss the benefits of playful literacy experiences in preschool. Her administration is used to working with older students and is not familiar with developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) for young children. Ms. Mya invites them to observe children participating in child- and teacher-led literacy and language activities. Afterward, observers mention that they didn’t see children sitting and completing worksheets, practicing with flashcards, or studying a letter of the week. Since Ms. Mya is committed to DAP and advocating for it, she talks about the research-based publications that inform her playful approach to literacy. She has previously shared these resources with families and other stakeholders too.
To advocate for DAP, educators can communicate about how this framework helps foster early literacy (and other areas) during children’s formative years. Engaging with stakeholders—like administrators, colleagues, and families—gives educators an opportunity to share professional resources showing the effectiveness of playful literacy learning (such as the NAEYC book Literacy Learning for Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers: Key Practices for Educators and the chapter “Teaching Content in Early Childhood Education” in Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth Through Age 8).
Additional ways to communicate about playful literacy practices include
- showcasing documentation (photos, videos, and anecdotal notes) of children’s learning
- engaging in playful literacy activities during family events
- inviting families to observe literacy-rich experiences in the preschool setting
- providing information through emails, a classroom website, and other avenues
2. Engage children in interactive read alouds.
While reading a story about an older dog named Midnight who is adjusting to having a new puppy living with him, Ms. Mya makes sure to pause so the children can see the pictures.
Harrison exclaims, “That dog is big!”
Ms. Mya responds as she points to the dogs, “Yes! The black dog, Midnight, is bigger than the yellow puppy, Sunny. I wonder how they got their names?”
As the class continues to discuss the story, Ms. Mya asks, “What do you think will happen next?” and “I wonder why the dog is barking?”
She also stops on words like protective and leash, sharing a brief explanation of what they mean.
In the vignette above, Ms. Mya led children in an interactive reading experience, incorporating multiple different teaching strategies to engage the children and promote specific areas of early literacy. Read alouds of different types of texts and topics—across the day—offer ample opportunities for rich literacy learning.
3. Infuse early literacy into all areas of the classroom or program.
In the math center, Ms. Mya includes clipboards with paper and pencils for children to draw shapes, make markings, and/or write numbers. She makes sure that notebooks are always available in the science center so that children can record their observations—for example, about the plants they’ve been growing—in any form they are comfortable with. Finally, Ms. Mya continuously incorporates literacy materials in the dramatic play area, such as menus, order slips, checklists, and coupons.
Like many teachers, Ms. Mya has a dedicated book area that includes different genres of texts and a diverse representation of social identities (related to race, culture, gender, ability, and more). In addition, Ms. Mya has planned for and updated other centers to integrate literacy. In a similar vein, educators can include environmental print throughout their settings (labels for areas and items) and different types of texts linked to each learning area (informational texts about shapes in the math center or insects in the science area).
4. Model writing for different purposes.
At lunch, Ms. Mya hears the children talking about their favorite foods. Using this as a springboard, Ms. Mya lists the foods they mentioned on a large sheet of paper. She writes each child’s name on a sticky note, and they vote by putting their names by their favorite food. The overwhelming favorite is pizza.
The next day, Ms. Mya transforms the dramatic play center into a pizzeria. It includes menus, a clipboard with a pencil, pretend pizza and money, a cash register, and other related props. The children help make a large sign saying “Preschool Pizzeria.”
Ms. Mya pretends to be the waitress. She says, “Welcome to Preschool Pizzeria! May I take your order?”
Helena replies, “I want some pop and pizza.”
Ms. Mya shows how to spell pop and pizza. She says, “I am going to write the word pop.” Saying the word slowly, she asks what sound the children hear at the beginning of the word. Children make the /p/ sound, so she writes the letter p. She continues with the rest of the word, isolating each sound until she has written pop. Ms. Mya shows the children what she has written and explains, “Pop. I wrote down the sounds I heard: /p/, /o/, /p/. This reads, pop!”
Too often, literacy is equated with reading alone. Writing is a critical aspect of literacy too and can be playfully integrated in a variety of ways, including
- inviting a child who is missing their family while away from home to write a card to a family member
- enlisting children to create invitations for an upcoming event or even to invite each other to play in a learning area
- offering children opportunities to dictate stories or describe pictures they have drawn
Other ideas include providing tablets with open-ended drawing and writing apps, typing compositions on a computer, and scaffolding children’s writing as they make labels, a supply list, or thank you letters. (For more on how dramatic play fosters early literacy development, see “Creating Dramatic Play Areas That Support Literacy Development” in the Winter 2024 issue of Teaching Young Children.)
5. Model your own interest and enjoyment in literacy.
While children play, Ms. Mya sits down in her cozy rocking chair by the whole-group area and begins reading the book Charlotte’s Web quietly to herself. As she reads, she continues to scan the room. Soon, a couple of children ask her what she is doing. She tells them she is reading one of her favorite books that she read as a child and offers to read a couple of pages to them. They eagerly listen to Ms. Mya read.
After Ms. Mya finishes reading a few pages, she invites the children to go back to playing. She walks over to the whiteboard and begins writing down the schedule for the next day. She picks up her favorite purple dry-erase marker and writes down the schedule and some teacher notes. Another child, Sam, walks up and comments on her handwriting. Ms. Mya tells Sam that she likes using the purple marker to write the schedule because the color makes her happy.
When children see educators read (notes, magazines, books) and write (letters, lists, typing on an iPad), it shows them literacy is valued. The literacy activities in the vignette above were separate from working with the children directly, but they served an important purpose: children observed Ms. Mya in everyday, authentic activities that showcased different uses and reasons for reading and writing. Ms. Mya wanted to show that literacy tasks are not just work to be completed but can and should be enjoyable.
Lawson-Adams, J., D.K. Dickinson, & J.K. Donner. 2022. “Sing It or Speak It?: The Effects of Sung and Rhythmically Spoken Songs on Preschool Children’s Word Learning." Early Childhood Research Quarterly 58: 87–102.
Nicolopoulou, A., K.S. Cortina, H. Ilgaz, C.B. Cates, & A.B. de Sá. 2015. “Using a Narrative- and Play-Based Activity to Promote Low-Income Preschoolers’ Oral Language, Emergent Literacy, and Social Competence.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 31: 147–62.
Sinclair, E.M., E.J. McCleery, L. Koepsell, K.E. Zuckerman, & E.B. Stevenson. 2019. “Shared Reading Practices and Early Literacy Promotion in the First Year of Life.” Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics 40 (7): 538–46.
Christina Mirtes, PhD, is a tenured associate professor and the graduate program coordinator of early childhood education in the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University. She draws from her 20 years of classroom teaching experience working with children and families in pre-K–third grade inclusive early childhood environments. She is also the author of Concepts to Go!: Early Literacy Supporting Intentional Learning Experiences in Early Childhood Settings.
Jessica Grimone-Hopkins, PhD, is an assistant professor of early childhood education at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Prior to working in higher education, Dr. Grimone-Hopkins spent more than 10 years teaching and supervising in public and private schools. , is an assistant professor of early childhood education at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Prior to working in higher education, Dr. Grimone-Hopkins spent more than 10 years teaching and supervising in public and private schools.