Play as a teaching practice for literacy

The benefits of play, types of play, and ways to embed language learning in play.

Play is a key teaching practice for language (and literacy) learning and development. In this section we look at how learning foci for interacting with others can be embedded within play experiences.


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. Effective early childhood practices use integrated teaching and learning approaches to support sustained and shared interactions with children.
- VEYLDF (2016)

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

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.

Diagram of the three integrated teaching and learning approaches: child-directed play and learning, guided play and learning, and adult-led learning. Integrated teaching and learning approaches (VEYLDF)

Educators can encourage child-directed and guided play to embed numerous language concepts. 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 kinds 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)
  • EExploring 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 the 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®).

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 car
    • pretending to make food out of non-edible materials (e.g. sand, cardboard).

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.

Sociodramatic play

  • When children engage in shared imaginative/dramatic play, it becomes sociodramatic play
  • This is the most advanced form of play.

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
    • e.g. Follow the Leader, Hide and Seek, Hopscotch, Simon Says

Embedding language in play

  • When setting up play experiences, think of what language concepts, words, sentences, stories, and discussions could be embedded.
  • Choose resources and design play areas in ways that encourage interaction between children and with educators and engage in sustained shared thinking.
  • Provide opportunities for turn-taking, modelling, and imitation of play behaviours and language.
  • Design play experiences that encourage children to make meaning, communicate non-verbally, tell and create stories, and discuss their ideas.
  • Plan for child-led or guided play depending on your learning intentions When using play as a teaching practice for interacting with others, there are a range of learning foci that educators can embed. refer to the experience plans for more information.

Making meaning and expressing ideas

  • Social games which encourage joint attention, and eye gaze (e.g. peek-a-boo, turn-taking games)
  • Watching and copying games - where educators observe and imitate children’s gestures, and see if children will copy educators back
  • Listening games (like Simon Says), encouraging children to listen carefully and respond to instructions.

Speech sounds

  • Join in with children when they use funny sounds in their play
  • Use speech sounds and language during functional (e.g. cars, balls) constructive (blocks, sand, playdough), and sensory play.

Concept development and vocabulary

  • Think about what words and concepts can be embedded within a certain play situation
  • There are lots of naming words (nouns) to label and sort in scenarios like: grocery store, home
  • Constructive play can be a great opportunity for talking about spatial concepts
  • sensory play is great for exploring different colours, temperatures, textures.

Conversation and social skills

  • Play scenarios allow children to take on different roles or characters, and use language that fits that role
  • For example, explorers or pirates use specific language for navigation and solving problems
  • Through all kinds of cooperative play, children can practice the language needed for requesting, instructing, questioning and negotiating.

Stories and narratives

  • In symbolic play, children explore using objects to stand in for other things (using a stick as a magic wand) – you can also use props to recreate stories from books or storytelling experiences
  • Play can also be used for children to create their own stories, including characters and events.

Explanations and sharing information

  • Through the many kinds of play (including functional, sensory, constructive, symbolic) children can share their ideas and responses, and listen to educators
  • Educators can use lots of language during play situations to provide opportunities to hear about what things are, how they work, and why things happen
  • By using open questions (e.g. Tell me more about that… What do you think about that?), educators can encourage children to label, describe, and explain objects or actions in their play
  • Asking what for, why, and how questions help children to express their opinions and observations

Higher order language

  • “I-spy” and other category games (e.g. who can think of something that is … outside, underwater, for camping)
  • Playing games which require children to come up with and remember a sequence of items or events “shopping memory game”
  • Hand clapping games which require children to remember a sequence of words and phrases (like “Miss Mary Mac”)
  • Skipping games (like “Teddy Bear Teddy Bear”).

Theory to Practice

Play is a method that children use to engage with objects, people, behaviours, concepts and language, in ways that are motivating and developmentally appropriate. In line with Vygotsky’s (1967) socio-cultural learning, play allows children to be supported by a more capable “player”.

Children use play to re-create [the] world and model the social behaviour they see in it. In this way they can experience the world without risking the consequences.
- Toye and Prendiville (2013)

Language is one of the many outcomes that children can learn through play. When planning integrated and holistic learning experiences, educators can create opportunities for various kinds of play, and scaffold children’s exploration.

Along with aspects of physical, socio-emotional, and cognitive development, language skills can be explored and learned through “scaffolding” of children’s play (Bruner; see Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976). This means that children can learn new language and play 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 adults 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).

However, in a review by Weisberg, Zosh and Hirsh-Pasek (2013) the following conclusions are made about the links between language and play:

  • play allows children to practice using symbols and understanding symbolic relationships (a key part of using language)
  • play encourages children to use more advanced language that is specific to certain scenarios or social roles
  • 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
  • play allows children to be in control and engaged in the interaction, and when adults follow this lead, children are likely to learn more language (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 develop knowledgeable and confident self-identities:

  • explore different identities and points of view in dramatic play
  • 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.

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.

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.

Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work:

  • use symbols in play to represent and make meaning.

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.

Experience plans and videos

Early communicators (birth - 18 months

Early language users (12 - 36 months)

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)

Learning foci and teaching practices