Playing to Learn, Learning to Play: How Mature, Extended Play Can Develop Both Literacy and Self-Regulation

Mature Play

What does “mature, extended play” entail, and what skills does it develop? These questions, while important for early childhood educators, are rarely taken up by journalists. Po Bronson is an exception: in a national tour of early childhood classrooms he sought these exact answers. Specifically, he visited schools using the Tools of the Mind curriculum–an approach based in Vygotskian theory–but mature, extended play isn’t limited to this program. What Bronson learned is important for us all, whether you already utilize mature play in your classroom and you’re looking for inspiration, or you’re trying to incorporate concepts from this approach for the first time.

So what is it? This approach involves dramatic play centers with some key elements:

  1. Preparation: Before students play in a center (for example, a flower shop), they spend time learning about what it represents. Children might read storybooks about flower shops, visit a real flower shop, or meet a florist. This preparation allows children to draw from their own experiences when they set up play scenarios.
  2. Planning: Each child writes a “play plan” with an action they intend to perform. For example, for a restaurant scenario, the child might fill in the template “I am going to” with “take orders,” and draw a picture of themselves doing so.
  3. Play!: Students switch roles every day and centers every week, and all of the centers are replaced each month. When students aren’t playing, they’re learning about an upcoming center!

Bronson noticed several benefits for this type of play. First, natural motivations for writing are incorporated throughout. Students want to write their “play plan” as well as various kinds of writing that occur in play itself, such as taking orders, making appointments, writing checks or sending letters. Three year olds might only be able to write squiggles on their “play plan,” but these squiggles are an important precursor to the desire and ability to write. On the other hand, kindergarteners write sentences on the board while playing schoolhouse or act out scenarios from books they’ve read or first graders might reenact “Magic Treehouse” books.

Mature, extended play also helps children develop their executive function skills. When Bronson saw a child break from a character role, a teacher simply asked him what he wrote on his “play plan” and the child returned to that activity. And, confirming Vygotsky’s insight that “in play it is as though [each child] were a head taller than himself,” Bronson observed a kindergartener “pretending to be a student [at a schoolhouse center] truly concentrate and fight to use his phonics skills to read the whole sentence. I had the sense that, if he weren’t pretending to be a student, and was instead just a regular student doing this with a real teacher, he would have given up. But by taking on the pretend role of ‘student,’ he kept to his role and managed to read aloud.”

These stories remind us we don’t need to choose between activities that develop executive function versus literacy–in fact, these skills are intertwined and are best developed in tandem. How are you incorporating mature play in your classroom, and how have you seen it affect your students? We’d love to hear your story!

To read Po Bronson’s full article, click here.


Authored by Magen Eissenstat, Rice University SLC Senior Student Intern

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