Playing to read

Did you ever play with one of these as a kid?


(photo by Collin Allen)

Today’s toy phones often look more like this:

But whether it’s a rotary or a flip, did you know that when your child plays with a toy phone he is gaining skills he needs to get ready to read?  Maria Montessori, the Italian educator, famously said that “play is the work of the child.”  By definition play is fun, but for young children it isn’t just fun.  It’s actually the most important way they learn.  

So how does playing with a phone lead to reading?   In the first couple years of life, when your baby or toddler plays with a phone it will most likely look something like a real phone.  As she grows older, though, around two or three years old, you might find her picking up a block and pretending that the block is a phone.  Then around four or five years of age she might even pretend the air between her fingers and thumb is a phone.  

This progression in the development of children’s play is an example of an important concept called symbolic representation.  They start out with something very similar to a phone (the plastic phone) representing a real phone.  They graduate to something that only vaguely resembles a phone (the block) and finally reach a point where they can picture the phone in their imaginations.  Learning to read requires a very mature sense of symbolic representation.  Readers have to understand that the black squiggles on the page represent real objects and ideas.  That’s no easy task!  

Imagine being a baby, just learning about what a cat is.  You hear the family’s cat purring.  You feel its soft fur when it rubs against you.  You see it as it jumps down from the bed.  You love that cat so much that for your first birthday someone gives you a plush cat toy.  It doesn’t purr or jump, but it is soft, and you recognize it by its four legs, tail, whiskers and cat-like face.  Later, in preschool, your teacher reads Kitten’s First Full Moon.   Of course that cat isn’t even soft, but by now you have learned to recognize the image of a cat, even in its two-dimensional form.  In fact you have the image of a cat in your head, and when you play house with your friends you “feed” your pretend cat, even though there is “nothing” there.  Finally, when you are in school, learning how to read, you learn that these squiggles - cat - represent three sounds (kuh-ah-t), and that when we put those sounds together they make a word - cat! - and that word represents the sweet, purring ball of fur you know so well at home!

So enjoy playing with your child, and as you play together know that you are helping her on the long and glorious path called “learning how to read!”