As a young child, I did not enjoy reading. I am pleased to say that I am fully recovered now and I even teach an emergent literacy class to a group of 4 and 5 year olds. When I am asked by fellow parents of preschoolers what the most important skills are for kindergarten readiness, I always respond that there is wide range of typical development in the first five years. Exposure and encouragement are vital. My mother was also an early childhood educator and reading specialist. What did she and my teachers do to encourage a reluctant reader? They knew the value of a multisensory approach in teaching early literacy and they recognized the importance of play. I may have been the last kid to sit down and read a book from cover to cover, but I loved symbolic play, drawing, storytelling, and eventually writing. These are all components of emergent literacy. Loose parts play is a wonderful way to encourage reading and writing. Why?
- Loose parts don’t have to break the bank! While there are a variety of great alphabet manipulatives out there, loose parts can be used to create your own.
- Loose parts encourage symbolic play, creativity, problem solving, storytelling, sequencing and other skills vital to early literacy.
- The same loose parts can be used in a plethora of ways at every step of the game!
Today I will guide you through some simple activities using loose parts in your home or classroom to encourage a variety of early literacy skills. You can read more about how “Loose Parts Nurture Literacy” at Choices for Children from the perspective of two of the most influential names in loose parts play and early childhood, Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky.
Loose Parts Play and Literacy
Using Loose Parts to Teach Letter Recognition:
Children who see letters and printed language and see it often learn it! This is often referred to as a print rich environment and when it comes to loose parts, there are great ways to make your loose parts play print rich!
- Using permanent markers, paint pens or even stickers, you can turn small loose parts (like rocks, glass gems, bottle caps or tree cookies) into alphabet manipulatives! These can be used for introducing letters and their sounds individually.
- I love using alphabet manipulatives indoors and outside. Whether you are using your own homemade versions or a set of magnetic letters, a letter scavenger hunt is always popular! My older son loved searching for the letter Gg in our garden last year!
Loose Parts and Early “Writing”:
As children learn to recognize letters, they are also entering the early stages of writing them. Loose parts are great for this process!
- Loose parts play in general promotes fine motor and gross motor development, strengthening the muscles needed for writing later on. Smaller loose parts encourage the use of tiny muscles in the hand while playing with heavier and larger objects can encourage development of larger muscles in the body and core.
- Children can use small loose parts to trace the shape of written letters or to shape and “write” letters on their own.
- When we think about writing and letters, we often think small, as in using small loose parts to trace or shape letters. Don’t forget to also think big! Loose parts can be used to trace letters made from masking tape on the floor or even sidewalk chalk drawn outside.
What’s In a Name?
One of the first and most important words children learn is their own name. I love using loose parts to work on name recognition. I keep a set of river rocks in our play garden with the letters in each of my sons’ names written on them with paint pen.
Early on, it can be helpful to have a printed prompt. Once copying a name is mastered, a child is ready to independently “spell” it and begin building others’ names and site words!
- You can use your alphabet manipulatives to practice chunking phonemes together, word families or site words.
- For older readers and writers, you can create loose parts with full words written on them for building sentences, stories and poems.
Symbolic Play and Storytelling with Loose Parts
Symbolic play is a huge component of early reading and writing. Many children are naturally inspired to use loose parts in story telling like the Jack and the Beanstalk sensory bin pictured above. You can encourage this process by asking thought provoking questions that will help little ones expand on their stories and play. You can also nurture the process by assisting your storyteller in drawing and dictating stories to be put in a book or even taking photos of their play to add storylines to later.
- Small world play is a great way to expand on children’s literature using loose parts. For very early readers, Goodnight, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann comes to life with a collection of toy zoo animals, wooden craft sticks and playdough. Older preschoolers will have a blast replaying the exciting sequence of Michael Rosen’s and Helen Oxenbury’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt with a selection of relevant loose parts and props.
- Story stones can be created at home using collected river rocks and pictures either painted, printed, or even drawn temporarily with chalk to create your own stories or to retell familiar ones.
- You can target a few early literacy skills in this Gingerbread Play Dough Alphabet Activity, where loose parts and play dough offer a fun, hands-on way to expand on a familiar fairy tale while practicing letter recognition.
As you observe and encourage your children in loose parts play, you will see how naturally it lends itself to early literacy skills. Whatever age or stage of development your early reader is in, loose parts play will support the process. The most important indicator of a successful reader and writer is a child who develops a love for literacy early on. This is sure to happen when children have ample opportunities to read, be read to and most importantly, to play.