Play (emergent literacy)

Play is a key teaching practice for emergent literacy learning and development.

In the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF, 2016), play is described as a key component of integrated teaching and learning approaches.

Play is essential to stimulate and integrate a wide range of children’s intellectual, physical, social and creative abilities. - VEYLDF (2016)

Play is a key teaching practice for emergent literacy learning and development.


In this section we look at how educators can setup play experiences in order to embed emergent literacy learning foci, including:

  • making meaning and expressing ideas
  • exploring and creating texts fine motor
  • concepts of print
  • phonological awareness
  • phonics.

While there can be many definitions of play, some broad criteria from Gray (2009) are that play is:

  • self-chosen and self-directed
  • intrinsically motivating
  • structured by mental rules
  • imaginative
  • engaging.

The benefits of play for emergent literacy

In early childhood education, play has been seen as the central concept that underpins this area of teaching, regardless of how it is named or defined. - Fleer (2013, p.2)

Under the Practice Principle Integrated Teaching and Learning Approaches, the VEYLDF (2016) distinguishes between:

  • adult-led learning
  • child-directed play and learning
  • guided play and learning.

Educators move between these three approaches in an interweaving way, in order to advance children’s knowledge.

Integrated Teaching and Learning Approaches. Image: VEYLDF (2016. p. 15)

Educators can encourage child-directed and guided play to embed numerous emergent literacy concepts. Children’s explorations and creations during play can include the use of literacy for communicating meaning through multiple modes.

Using play, educators can create authentic and responsive language learning experiences:

Through play and other opportunities children learn to make sense of and construct ideas about the social and natural world – the people, places, objects and experiences they encounter every day. - VEYLDF (2016)

Types of play

There are many types of children’s play. Here are a few of the major types.

Solitary play

  • independent play without involvement from others
  • this type of play allows children to explore materials, concepts and ideas at their own pace, and is an important opportunity for children’s cognitive development.

Parallel play

  • play alongside or in the vicinity of other children, but without active interaction or cooperation.

Cooperative play

  • play which directly involves cooperation with others
  • groups of children (or children and adults) playing towards a shared goal or purpose.

Object/functional play

  • “repeated actions and manipulations of sounds, objects and muscle movements” (Smilansky, 1968, cited in Fleer, 2013, p. 26)
  • exploring the properties of things (like water, gravity, magnetism)

    • e.g. moving a car back and forth, playing with blocks.

Sensory play

  • play that develops children’s senses (e.g. textures, smells, sounds, tastes, and visual qualities)

    • e.g. exploring the sounds objects can make, feeling the texture of different materials, experimenting with mixing elements together, or pulling things apart.

Constructive play

  • using objects creatively to construct objects from their own imagination e.g. building a tower, sand castles, marble runs, train tracks, or using connective blocks (e.g. Duplo® or Lego®)
  • can include using letter or number shapes (made of various materials) to experiment and create children’s own name, for instance.

Symbolic play

Using an object symbolically, to stand in for something meaningfully

  • e.g. pretending a banana is a phone, pretending to use a computer, or drive a caro pretending to make food out of non-toxic materials (e.g. sand, cardboard)
  • can include using images symbolically, mark marking, or using letters/words to communicate messages.

Imaginative/dramatic play

  • a more involved kind of symbolic play, where children engage in make believe
  • children become different characters and can pretend they are in different locations and times
  • children may use emergent literacy concepts to enhance their imaginative play (e.g. using visual texts as props in their play, pretending to read/write).

Sociodramatic play

  • when children engage in shared imaginative/dramatic play, it becomes sociodramatic play
  • this is the most advanced form of play (refer to sociodramatic play – emergent literacy)
  • this can be a great opportunity for emergent literacy learning
  • educators can provide print-based play materials to enhance planned and spontaneous play e.g. use labels, pretend money, name tags, signs, newspapers, books, lists, menus, diagrams, directions.

Games with rules

  • when play is centred around games with particular pre-determined rules, aimed at shaping the behaviours and actions within play
  • can be educator- or child-initiated
  • games with rules can be an engaging way to play and learn about Concepts of Print, and Phonological Awareness e.g. Bingo, Go fish with alphabet cards, recognising 3D letters or numbers from a “mystery bag”.

Literacy-rich play areas

Educators can create opportunities for exploration and use of materials and texts relevant for emergent literacy learning within play. Refer to literacy-rich environment for detailed information.

Fellowes and Oakley (2014) note the importance of immersing children in play experiences embedded with emergent literacy opportunities:

Young children learn about written communication and the social uses of written texts when they have the opportunity to read and write them for ‘real’ reasons in the different social contexts of their regular play activities.

Educators should ensure that the classroom learning centres provide for the purposeful use of texts. The different areas of the classroom should include plenty of writing materials as well as appropriate examples of written texts.- Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 387)

Some ideas for enhancing play areas by making them literacy-rich are provided below (adapted from Walker & Spybrook, 2011; Fellows and Oakley, 2014, p. 472-474).

Block and construction area

Examples of written texts could include:

  • labelled pictures of block and other constructions, including children’s own constructions
  • books about building, construction, and machines
  • charts (with pictures and labels) that list the types of blocks and other materials available
  • signs providing directions (visual and written) for packing up.

Writing materials should be available to allow children to enjoy the “the writing of building plans (pictures and/or print), signs and descriptive labels” (Fellowes & Oakley, 2014, p. 387), including:

  • paper, index cards, pencils, textas, tape, clipboards
  • letter stencils/stamps for labelling plans or photos of constructions

With educators, or independently, children can:

  • refer to books and pictures to get ideas
  • draw up plans for their constructions
  • label or create signs
  • take photos and annotate pictures of the constructions
  • talk about what they have made.

Music area

Examples of written (and other) texts could include:

  • books or pages with lyrics and music
  • audio players with familiar songs for children to listen to

Writing materials and instruments

With educators, or independently, children can:

  • experiment with making sounds on instruments
  • tapping drums or playing other instruments along with recorded songs
  • write/draw and play the patterns of beat
  • listen to songs and follow along with a song book
  • draw a picture to tell the story of a song.

Puzzles and manipulative areas

Various materials to explore and use, including:

  • playdough, alphabet cutters
  • stamp pad and stamps
  • plastic/wooden letters, large letter shapes, word shapes, letters, numbers, and shape stencils
  • magnetic letters, and magnetic board (or whiteboard)
  • pattern books and pattern pictures
  • various writing implements and materials (pens, pencils, crayons, paper, cardboard, clipboard)
  • picture dictionaries to explore.

With educators, or independently, children can:

  • experiment with writing, drawing, stamping, playing with and arranging letters/words/numbers
  • use materials to create cards, labels, or signs
  • make patterns, own name, and simple words using letter materials.

Science area

Examples of written (and other) texts could include:

  • books relating to particular interests or themes
  • pictures, charts and tables on display (labels or captions written underneath pictures)
  • visual encyclopedias.

Writing and other materials for children to explore:

  • blank booklets, markers, pencils, crayons
  • blank charts and tables
  • felt board with felt shapes and short words to stick on (relating to children’s interests and themes)

With educators, or independently, children can:

  • be a scientist and record discoveries on charts, tables, and booklets provided
  • draw and add captions underneath with support
  • match captions to objects.

Sociodramatic play areas

Embedding emergent literacy learning foci in play

General principles

  • When setting up play experiences, think of what literacy concepts can be embedded.
  • Choose resources and design play areas in ways that encourage interaction between children and educators.
  • Engage in discussions and investigations - sustained shared thinking.
  • Provide opportunities for modelling, turn-taking, scaffolding, and extension of play and emergent literacy behaviours.
  • Design play experiences that encourage children to make meaning, communicate non-verbally, tell and create stories, discuss their ideas, use emergent reading and writing to look up new information, and express themselves.
  • Plan for child-led or guided play depending on the learning intentions.

When using play as a teaching practice for emergent literacy, there are a range of learning foci that educators can embed.

Some brief examples include:

Making meaning and expressing ideas

  • model and scaffold use of written texts for emergent reading (e.g. reading and interpreting charts/instructions, responding to signs, finding information in books, following menus)
  • model and scaffold use of written texts for emergent writing (refer to examples in play areas above).

Exploring and creating texts

  • make available the texts from reading and writing experiences, so children can use these as stimuli for their play (including picture storybooks, non-fiction texts, functional texts like recipes and instructions)
  • children can create functional and meaningful texts composed of drawings/images; they may also start to include some elements of print (with educator support)
  • these could include any of the texts relevant to play areas and themes explored above.

Fine motor

  • consider the fine motor requirements of any drawing and writing implement or material you provide children
  • use writing and play experiences to model and scaffold children’s use of implements to create more complex and varied marks, scribbles, drawings, and shape/letter forms, developing their fine motor skills
  • support children to use writing implements for all kinds of writing experiences from mark making through to using print in a functional way during play.

Concepts of print

  • talk about and model print concepts in the context of play (e.g. model how to look up information on a page, highlight the features and meanings of environmental print as part of play, e.g. the red stop sign means stop!, the recycling symbol signifies which kind of waste can go in that particular bin)
  • use the terminology to describe different kinds of texts/materials with children, e.g. letter, brochure, notepad, stick note, menu, receipt, recipe etc.
  • make letter shapes with children out of playdough, clay, and other materials• help children to recognise the initial letter of objects - using magnetic or wooden letters
  • play games where children find their name in a group of words or letters, or match upper and lowercase letters.

Making upper and lowercase letter shapes out of clay, playdough or other materials, can be a hands on way to develop fine motor and alphabet knowledge.

Phonological awareness

While at the music area, draw children’s attention to the sounds of spoken language, including:

  • syllables (beats)
  • rhymes
  • individual sounds

Play sound games like finding patterns of syllable, rhyme, initial/final sound by:

  • matching pictures to other pictures: dog/log
  • matching objects to pictures: tap/toe
  • matching objects to actions: rope/jump

refer to phonological awareness: getting started for more ideas


  • during children’s play, draw attention to functional uses of print (e.g. adding labels, signs etc.) and model how simple sound-letter (phonics) patterns can be used to spell short words
  • model sounding out and writing a letter (or letter pattern) for each sound in the word

Playing with letters: Use letters to make short words:

  • could be written or made with plastic/wood/magnetic letters
  • encourage children to get hands on with letters and rearrange them to find words
  • use the five short vowels (a, e, i, o, u) to find easy-to-sound-out words.

Theory to practice

Play is a method that children use to engage with objects, people, behaviours, concepts, language and emergent literacy, in ways that are motivating and driven by their interests.

Piaget’s (1962) saw children’s exploration during play as the ultimate example of children learning to perceive reality in symbolic ways. Vygotsky (1962, 1978) saw play as the arena for children to learn the symbolising abilities needed for abstract thought, and representations useful for emergent literacy.

In addition, play allows children to be supported by a more capable “player”.

Numerous theorists see play as an important avenue for allowing children to use and develop emergent literacy for real-life purposes (Hall, 2017; Rowe, 2017; Walker & Spybrook, 2011; Bodrova and Leong, 2017).

Christie and Roskos (2015) describe the multiple benefits of play for emergent literacy learning, including:

  • play as setting (offering a time and place for children to encounter and explore the purposes, roles, and objects of literacy)
  • play as activity (offering opportunities for children to direct their own learning and engagement with literacy, as if they were already readers and writers in the conventional sense)
  • play as process(supporting children’s development of language and higher order thinking which is required for emergent literacy, including decontextualised language, and narrative competence for example).

Children develop many different capabilities when involved in play, including emergent literacy. When planning integrated and holistic learning experiences, educators can create opportunities for various kinds of literacy-rich play, and scaffold children’s exploration of emergent literacy concepts.

“Scaffolding” children’s play (Bruner; see Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976), allows educators to build upon and extend children’s emergent literacy learning. This means that children can learn new play and emergent literacy behaviours from more capable peers or adults, by collaborating in play (Vygotsky, 1967).

Children often engage in play independently from adults. However, educators have an important role in setting up play experiences. They can also join in play when relevant, in order to model new play behaviours and language (Smilansky, 1968; Fleer, 2016). This involvement of educators allows children to be challenged to build upon their independent play.

Evidence base

Because play can take many forms as a teaching practice, it is difficult to measure its impact on language learning specifically. Some reviews of research indicate that play is associated with the development of language and literacy skills, but it is not always possible to say that play itself has caused these changes in development (Lillard et al., 2013; Christie & Roskos, 2015).

Ongoing investigations are underway to investigate the relationship between play and emergent literacy, with some research indicating that metaplay (i.e. communications between children during play experiences about how to play) is more strongly linked to emergent literacy development than symbolising abilities (i.e. pretending that a block is a car) (refer to discussion in Hall, 2017).

Weisberg, Zosh and Hirsh-Pasek’s (2013) made the following conclusions about the links between play and language/emergent literacy:

  • play allows children to practice using symbols and understanding symbolic relationships (a key part of emergent literacy development)
  • play encourages children to explore the use of symbols, and representations (both visual and code-based) to communicate messages in context
  • during play, there is a significant amount of language used by children, their peers, and adults, providing numerous opportunities to hear, practice, and learn language and emergent literacy
  • play allows children to be in control and engaged in the interaction, and when adults follow this lead, children are likely to develop their language and emergent literacy skills more (compared to an adult-led experience).

Outcome 1: identity

Children feel safe, secure and supported

  • confidently explore and engage with social and physical environments through relationships and play
  • initiate and join in play
  • explore aspects of identity through role-play

Children learn to interact in relation to others with care, empathy and respect

  • engage in and contribute to shared play experiences.

Outcome 2: community

Children develop a sense of belonging to groups and communities and an understanding of the reciprocal rights and responsibilities necessary for active civic participation

  • cooperate with others and negotiate roles and relationships in play episodes and group experiences
  • build on their own social experiences to explore other ways of being
  • understand different ways of contributing through play and projects
  • are playful and respond positively to others, reaching out for company and friendship

Children become socially responsible and show respect for the environment
• use play to investigate, project and explore new ideas.

Outcome 4: learning

Children develop dispositions for learning such as curiosity, cooperation, confidence, creativity, commitment, enthusiasm, persistence, imagination and reflexivity

  • use play to investigate, imagine and explore ideas
  • initiate and contribute to play experiences emerging from their own ideas

Children transfer and adapt what they have learnt from one context to another

  • use the processes of play, reflection and investigation to problem-solve

Children resource their own learning through connecting with people, place, technologies and natural and processed materials

  • explore ideas and theories using imagination, creativity and play cultures

Outcome 5: communication

Children interact verbally and non-verbally with others for a range of purposes

  • use language and representations from play, music and art to share and project meaning
  • contribute their ideas and experiences in play and small and large group discussion
  • exchange ideas, feelings and understandings using language and representations in play
  • convey and construct messages with purpose and confidence, building on literacies of home and/or family and the broader community

Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts

  • listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhymes in context
  • view and listen to printed, visual and multimedia texts and respond with relevant gestures, actions, comments and/or questions
  • sing chant rhymes, jingles and songs
  • take on roles of literacy and numeracy users in their play
  • begin to understand key literacy and numeracy concepts and processes, such as the sounds of language, letter–sound relationships, concepts of print and the ways that texts are structured
  • explore texts from a range of different perspectives and begin to analyse the meanings
  • actively use, engage with and share the enjoyment of language and texts in a range of ways
  • recognise and engage with written and oral culturally constructed texts.

Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media

  • use language and engage in symbolic play to imagine and create roles, scripts and ideas
  • share the stories and symbols of their own cultures and re-enact well-known stories
  • use the creative arts, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, drama, dance, movement, music and story-telling, to express ideas and make meaning
  • experiment with ways of expressing ideas and meaning using a range of media
  • begin to use images and approximations of letters and words to convey meaning.

Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work

  • use symbols in play to represent and make meaning
  • begin to make connections between, and refer to patterns in, their feelings, ideas, words and actions, and those of others
  • develop an understanding that symbols are a powerful means of communication and that ideas, thoughts and concepts can be represented through them
  • begin to be aware of the relationships between oral, written and visual representations
  • begin to recognise patterns and relationships and the connections between them
  • listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhyme.
  • draw on memory of a sequence to complete a task
  • draw on their experiences in constructing meaning using symbols.

Children use information and communication technologies to access information, investigate ideas and represent their thinking

  • identify the uses of technologies in everyday life and use real or imaginary technologies as props in their play
  • use information and communication technologies to access images and information, explore diverse perspectives and make sense of their world
  • use information and communications technologies as tools for designing, drawing, editing, reflecting and composing
  • engage with technology for fun and to make meaning.

Experience plans and videos

Early Communicators (birth - 18 months):

For age groups: early communicators (birth - 18 months and early language users (12 - 36 months).

For age groups: language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months).