Wednesday, May 21, 2008

WAPL 2008: Playing to Learn, Learning to Play

Mary Discoll, the Outreach Librarian for the Dane County Library Service headquartered in Madison, presented a hands on session on play literacy. Mary uses a vehicle called the "Readmobile," jointly operated by Dane County Library Service and Madison Public Library, to visit Head Start and day care centers that serve children whose families have low incomes.

Mary brought samples of the toys used for each of the play literacy units. She explained that each session lasts about 45 minutes to an hour. She opens each session the same way with a naming song. She then introduces theme for the day by reading at a book. The next activity is to work on the literacy activity. That might involve making a list of items needed for a camping trip or flavors of ice cream, or ingredients for a pizza. While Mary may ask the children to guess at the initial letter a word starts with, she often just scribbles the rest of the word. The children Mary works with are pre-literate for the most part. Her goal is just to make them comfortable with using a pencil or crayon to make marks on a piece of paper to get the sense that writing is important. It is not important for the purpose of the activities that the children actually form letters or words.

After the literacy activity is introduced she has an adult help her model the type of play that the children will be doing. For example if the theme is Pizza Parlor, one adult takes the role of the restaurant worker and the other is the customer. The worker points out the list of ingredients and takes an order pad to write down what the customer wants. Since this is a play activity it doesn't matter what is actually written.

Then the worker uses a cardboard circle as the pizza pan. Add three round circles of felt, one in tan for the crust, red for the sauce, and yellow for the cheese. Mary demonstrated kneeding the felt crust and tossing it into the air and catching it. The worker then reaches into a bag of ingredients and finishes the pizza. The ingredients are various felt shapes (triangles, circles, squares) rather than pieces that look like mushrooms, peppers, or sausage. The worker demonstrates that the toppings need to be spread out on the pizza. Once it is ready, the pizza is put in a toy oven, and handed to the customer when it is "cooked."

Once the adults have acted out the roles of customer and pizza parlor worker, pairs of children are allowed to act out the roles themselves. Mary brings enough props for 20 children to play at a time. Typically there are about 17 children in the classes she visits. She visits the same centers once a month. The children are allowed to play with the props for about 15 minutes. Adults guide the children and remind them to "read" the list of ingredients and "write" down the orders.

The last portion of the session involves the children selecting books they want to check out. All books are check out on the day care center's card, but the children select the book they want to be able to keep for the month in their classroom. Some of the books may relate to the theme for the day or the teacher may request that the books address another theme the center will be using that month.

Elements of play literacy can be infused into almost any story time program. If libraries are doing day care outreach, adding elements of play literacy would certainly enhance their efforts. Mary suggested the book "Literacy Through Play" by Gretchen Owocki as a resource to get librarians started on their own play literacy efforts.

-Submitted by Barb Huntington

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