Here's some of what's been going on recently in my backyard, AKA Death-eye Village -- events that have me thinking about how play and literacy connect.
All villages need signage, of course, especially when they're home to shops selling weapons, potions and other accoutrements of magical play.
Many visitors will want to know where to find the weaponry outlet.
And even within stores, you need to be pointed to the different product options on offer.
I'll spare you pictures of the weapons themselves, the racks of wands and the (rather putrid) potion mixtures because what interests me here is how the children have naturally and enthusiastically included written language in their play.
These signs were all made by a seven year old boy whose typical response when asked by a parent or teacher to write anything down is an agonized moan of dismay. And yet here he is running around voluntarily writing.
It turns out that the sign to Death-eye village is a classic example of what Stanford's Shirley Brice Heath
famously called a 'literacy event.' Other examples would be reading the name of a favorite cereal on a store shelf, writing your name on a birthday card for a friend, or making money, tickets, or books for games with toys and pets.
The number of literacy events experienced by children as they begin to read and write is a crucial predictor of their future development as readers and writers. One way to understand the achievement gap between children from lower and higher income households is that the former experience measurably fewer literacy events during their pre-school and elementary years than the latter.
But a childhood of privilege isn't always amenable to literacy events either, at least those that children originate themselves. After all, a rigidly-scheduled day directed at notching up adult-sanctioned achievement leaves little time for free play.
For the upscale, ambitious parent, free play is frustratingly . . . well, free. An hour with a tutor guarantees a set number of literacy events. An hour of free play might not see any. But those it does see, I'd argue, are of disproportionate value because they spring from child.
Here are some lessons I've taken from observing my own children and their friends engaging with literacy in play:
1 - It happens when it happens. One child can want to start creating lists and signs literally years before another will. This is alarming and frustrating to caring but anxious parents who would really like to ensure that their children pass particular benchmarks by specific dates. But give children the time and space in which to develop that interest themselves and you'll help both inspire and preserve, indeed positively encourage, their emerging love of language.
2 - Because you can't schedule child-directed literacy events, children need a huge amount of free time in which to develop games that inspire them to literacy play. That's another big argument for dialing back the scheduling.
3 - Even though you can't schedule a self-motivated literacy event on cue, you can create circumstances likely to let them flower. Most importantly, you can give your children a rich world of stories from which to draw as inspiration. That world can come from conventional books, but it can also be inspired by movies, by conversations about family history, by song, by school, by church-going, by simply talking with a child about their everyday lives and interests.
4 - You can also establish fertile ground for literacy by seeding your child's play environment with a very few basic, affordable materials: paper, cardboard, pens, tape, paint. That's about it (wood, nails, hammers, sticks, bottles, water, mulch, dirt are great, too).
5 - Lastly, you can probably help by also removing certain things from your kids' play life: an always-on TV or radio, toys that encourage passive as opposed to interactive play, and, perhaps, yourself. If you are not around to write the sign, for example, the child has to write it for him- or herself. The same applies to spelling. My rule is never to spell a word for a child until the child's first given it a go. It's amazing how often they get it right (Death-eye Village -- I had no idea my seven year old could spell that right).
Most of all, though, we need confidence in our children's own amazing capacity (and need) for working out their lives through narrative. Give them the space to do that and we help enrich not only their lives, but ours as well.