Literacy

play and creative writing

How play leads to creative writing

There is a Teaching School I love to visit near Birmingham for children with special needs. It is an exceptionally warm and caring place. During my last visit, staff explained that creative writing is incredibly difficult for their students who face a double hurdle: their physical challenges and their play deficit. Their disabilities have prevented the day-to-day play that is part and parcel of most youngsters' lives. If you've never played with objects and with friends, how can you play with words and ideas?


Their observation should give us pause to appreciate what play does for all children. Donald Winnicott believed creativity is what gives life meaning, and he said, "Perhaps it is only in playing that the child is free to be creative." He viewed play as the forerunner of art, sport, hobbies, conversation and humour. I believe it is also the forerunner of creative writing.
Boy playing with unit blocks

Building foundations for literacy

Take a good look at the block play in this photo. Note the concentration, attention to detail and repeating patterns. Both block play and writing are forms of symbolic representation. When we write, our marks on the paper represent ideas. Children creating with blocks are representing ideas as well. Learners need to express themselves in concrete ways before progressing to abstract methods. 

Through block play, children build a foundation for future literacy.

Boys in particular often express their intelligence in three-dimensional ways, like block play. So let’s appreciate children as they are, and allow them to unfold in their own ways. If they are as deeply engaged as the boy in this photo, we can trust that they are developing the fine motor control, and the confidence, that will ultimately support their writing skills – when they are ready.

For more on learning value of block play, watch this video.

Open-ended play

How do you best prepare children for school?

My favourite pastime is watching children play, and my very favourite is their open-ended play. For a number of years my office overlooked a nursery garden, and it was endlessly inspiring to observe the children outside. By open-ended play, I mean play in which the children themselves – not adults – decide what to do, how to do it, and what to use. Such play is particularly fascinating because it gives a glimpse into children’s personalities and genius.

In the course of open-ended play, children will portray objects, act out stories or express ideas. This is so powerful. I don’t think we fully appreciate how significant it is! The confidence established as children represent ideas in concrete ways builds a strong foundation for the abstract forms of representation they will need in the future.

If you think about it, written language is a very abstract way of representing ideas. It’s quite a leap to grasp that little squiggles on paper symbolise words. We must not expect children to come to terms with this concept until they have had abundant experience of concrete representation in their play. The foundation must come first!

For more on open-ended play, see our I made a unicorn! training booklet

Literacy through block play

Block play and literacy

About ten or twelve years ago, an early years advisor told me there was a strong connection between block play and literacy. That seemed a little far-fetched. The only connection I could see was that both writing and block play require good hand-eye coordination and a certain amount of manual dexterity. However I began observing block play more closely. I noticed that children’s block play is often inspired by stories they have heard. A teacher in our local school observed: “I just told my Year Two class a fairy tale about a princess, knights and a dragon; now they are busy in the construction area building castles, knights and dragons.” After this, I started seeing numerous instances where children would go to the construction area after hearing a story and re-enact it with blocks.

My next realisation was really exciting. Writing is much more than a physical act of making marks on paper. Writing is a symbolic act! Whether someone is writing in English or Chinese, each of those squiggles on the paper represents a sound or an idea. Block play is also symbolic: when children construct with blocks they are representing ideas. Expressing ideas in concrete ways prepares children to symbolise ideas in abstract ways later. Think of block play as a language in which children weave elaborate narratives. It is a language in which boys in particular become amazingly fluent. The boy in this photo is Ian. He had rebuilt, in intricate detail, a map on the flyleaf of his favourite storybook. I asked Ian’s teacher Martha, “Could Ian have drawn that map with paper and pencil?” She replied that the pinnacle of Ian’s mark-making skills was drawing rainbows. Nothing more advanced than that. If Ian were not fluent in this language of blocks – if he did not have this medium in which to express his ideas – no one would have known that he had that map memorised!

I hope you are as excited by this as I am. It makes me realise how vital it is that we provide each child with a medium in which he or she feels at home. Then children can build their own strong foundation for future literacy.

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