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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Learning Through the Arts

Are you wondering how to teach through the arts while making curriculum connections and covering academic standards successfully?maggie-1

I teach Prek-4 in Aldine ISD in Houston, Texas. Over the years, I have developed a fondness for integrating the visual arts in my lessons. It is through the use of well selected pieces of art that children’s learning is facilitated and their minds are enabled to think critically and creatively.

Learning Through the Arts (LTA) prints are used as a tool for the interdisciplinary approach I use in my maggie-2lessons. At the beginning of each unit of inquiry, I select the prints that will be helpful for the development of the lessons. These prints were purchased from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts by my school. If prints like these are not available at your school, you can use prints from calendars, post cards, art books, posters, interesting art artifacts, pictures and art images from internet. Think about the interdisciplinary teaching possibilities you would have when integrating an art print like this from Wassily Kandinsky, Russian, 1866–1944.

As you show the art print to your students, be prepared to write down questions and comments maggie-3students come up with. Be prepared with teacher questions (provocations) to enhance students’ learning and interest according to the lesson.

The following are a few examples of questions (provocations) you can ask the students based on their observations, interpretations and when trying to make connections with the lessons: “What do you see…? Why do you think…? Did you notice that…? How would this work be different if the artist only used two or three colors? Do you notice any recognizable figures or objects within the work?  What clues does the artist give you as to what the objects are?”

LTA prints are an easy and highly engaging way to teach inquiry, to extend children’s vocabulary, and to trigger their curiosity and imagination.

maggie-8The importance of creative arts and the use of LTA prints is essential in my lessons because they lead students in search of knowledge and to the understanding that the process of completing a final product is more important than the product itself. It allows my students the opportunity to revisit prior subjects of interest that were explored and it allows them the opportunity to obtain multiple perspectives at a higher level of understanding.

I personally believe that children who are exposed to a curriculum with visual arts are taken to another level of understanding of how to appreciate their world and surroundings and, perhaps most importantly, how to think critically and creatively.

Through the use of LTA prints as a hands-on learning provocation, children become explorers and inquirers and show interest every time they are presented a new print.

“LTA prints bridge disciplines and curriculums to enable students to explore key concepts in the real world context of the art museum while teaching literacy and writing skills, math, science, and social studies. Integrate higher level cognitive skills, such as observing and organizing information, making predictions, and communicating ideas and thoughts with art inquiry methods to ultimately promote the students’ development of 21st-century skills that are needed to succeed in the world.” (Museum of Fine Arts of Houston)

My students started wondering about shadows in my classroom the moment this print was presented to them.


Here are a couple of question provocations from the LTA print: “What do you see?What else do you see? What is happening in this print? Why do you think she’s standing next to the plant? Is she inside or outside? How do you know? Do you see light? Where is it coming from?”

Some of the students’ answers:

“That is a girl when she was little.”

“I can see a mouse and two doors.”

 “She is standing on bricks.”

“There is a tree shadow.”

“There is light.”

Students were engaged in the conversation about the LTA print. We then went outside to continue with our lesson. This fascinating activity sparked the most amazing conclusions and understanding from my inquirers! maggie-10

“When it’s sunny, your hand makes a shadow.” -Hayden

“The sun makes you be the shadow.” – Colin

“The shadow is coughed out of people’s bodies.” -Ariyah

“Have you seen my shadow, Mrs. Abrego? It went away.” -Colin

“When you are in the light, it makes a shadow.” -Derrick

Join me in integrating art into your classrooms and inspire creative thinking like this in your students, too!


Authored by Maggie Abrego, Pre-K Teacher at Kujawa EC/PK Center and former Early Literacy Leadership Academy Resident Teacher

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The Gift of Presence


As schools wind down for the long holiday break, we know you are winding up for the fun and exciting holiday events you surely have planned with family and friends. At School Literacy and Culture, we are also preparing for a week away from the hustle and bustle of work while at the same time readying ourselves for the hustle and bustle of time spent with loved ones. It’s a busy time of year, primed with joy and excitement and also a tinge of stress and rush to “get it all done.”

Our challenge to you this year, the same one we are extending to ourselves, is to give the gift of a slower pace and “presence” rather than “presents” this year to family, friends and neighbors. Replace the worry about purchasing the perfect gift for a loved one with the opportunity to spend time together, maybe baking cookies or playing a board game or participating in another beloved holiday tradition. Many years from now the little ones in your life will likely not remember the toys they received but rather the card games played with a grandparent, sledding with neighbor friends (or, in Houston, maybe playing catch in the front yard with a neighbor; no snow here!) and curling up for a good bedtime story with mom in front of a roaring fireplace. This exact moment in time will not come again, enjoy it. So put down your cellphones, close your laptop and practice being “present” where you are.

Thank you for a wonderful 2016. We hope this holiday season brings you and your loved ones great joy and peace and may you share the best gift of all, being “present” with those around you.

We’ll see you in 2017!


Authored by Jordan Khadam-Hir, Rice University School Literacy and Culture


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Tis’ the Season to Get Cooking!

amber-pic-1As a young child, I remember sitting on the counter top watching my mother cook, begging her to help stir and, of course, lick the spoon! I didn’t realize until now how beautiful those memories were. Believe it or not, I was learning, too. Sharing the cooking experience with even the youngest child can have lasting positive impacts on their cognitive, social, emotional and physical development. What’s better than an experience that is both educational, child-friendly and tasty?

Just imagine a child getting a box of muffin mix out of the pantry. They immediately look at the pictures and read the ingredients needed. They are counting out the number of eggs and gathering measuring spoons by matching the label on the box to the 1 tsp label on the spoon. Learning to measure carefully and accurately (especially when doubling a recipe) is a skill that can only be taught through experience. Too much salt can be disastrous whereas too much sugar or cinnamon is usually never a bad thing. Cracking eggs without getting shell in the mix is a challenge that even adults struggle to master. Practicing cracking eggs into a separate bowl strengthens motor control, and let’s face it, we could all use a little practice! The ingredients have been added, now it’s time to stir! What a great feeling it is to watch a child’s facial expressions in wonder as they are seeing the eggs, flours and oil change right before their eyes. This is a great time to talk about the physical changes that each ingredient goes through in the baking process. Before, during and after baking, it’s fun to take out some crayons and draw pictures of the cooking process. It’s great cognitive practice to write or discuss what they are noticing and how they think the treat will taste. As you watch the timer count down…. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, BEEP! Now it’s time for the most important part: Taste testing for quality assurance!

Cooking is a love that knows no age limit! You can give step by step picture recipes and access to a microwave to the youngest child, or have your teenager help with cooking the Thanksgiving meal for your family of 20! You can find easy to follow picture recipes at the following link:

Amp up the cooking experience by donating meals to your local nonprofit or giving to a family in need in your community. Sharing cultural recipes and cooking traditions is a gift that keeps on giving for generations to come. Tis’ the season, so get cooking!


Authored by Amber Denton, First Grade Teacher at Bang Elementary School and former Early Literacy Leadership Academy Resident Teacher

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Why Creativity Matters


I was attending a School Literacy and Culture leadership seminar in Houston during which we were discussing the article “Imagination Conversations: The Call for Imagination, Creativity, and Innovation at America’s Imagination Summit.” One of the leaders asked the following question, “What if instead of focusing on a knowledge economy we valued an idea economy?”

Creativity in adults is highly valued in our society and it contributes to inventiveness, innovation, and social and cultural change. We know that creative people have effective responses that help them achieve their life goals and allow them to enjoy the journey. Creativity is both a skill set and an individual character trait that is developed throughout life.

A study from the article asked more than 1,500 CEOs, managers and public leaders what they consider to be the most crucial quality for competing in today’s world.

Creativity was the number one response. The article states that “there are many studies that support that this skill of creativity or innovation will increase in importance in the next few years and that our college degrees are coming up short in teaching this skill.”

Professional development for teachers seeking ways to inspire creativity in young children is hard to find. This is alarming to me as an early childhood teacher who is expected to give my students the tools they need to thrive. Education plays a key role in the development of innovative thinkers. Experiences that inspire fresh ideas are needed at every stage of the educational journey in early childhood. I have observed how children benefit from teachers who foster creative thinking. One of the most joyful parts of teaching is seeing children discover their innate creative potentials. Creativity should be a part of the learning plan in all subjects taught in school. When public schools eliminate opportunities for free play and/or the arts and curricula disregard creativity as a priority, children are not being prepared for a future that will depend on creative and critical thinking. We all will be losing out by leaving creativity as an optional skill to be developed in the classroom.

According to “Creativity Development in Early Childhood: The Role of Educators” by Doireann O’Connor (2013), activities experienced through the senses internalize the learning within the child so that it is remembered on a deeper level. This allows for strong creative foundations upon which knowledge and skills can be built. It is the role of the early childhood curriculum to introduce creativity through activities such as drawing, storytelling, problem solving, outdoor or pretend play, and building with natural materials. All children are creative beings. Their minds are made to be curious and explore.

There are questions that we must ask ourselves as teachers of young children, “How do we provide learning environments where imagination, creativity and innovation can flourish? How do we support teachers’ creative ideas that keep children’s brain muscles strong and free? How do we provide safe places where children are encouraged to take risks?” As educators we have the responsibility to teach our students in a way that best prepares them for their futures. We can make that difference by what and how we teach. So, let’s find ways to support an idea economy in our schools. Let’s make our classrooms a place where creativity deeply matters!


Authored by Emily Hughes, Teacher at Kujawa EC/PK in Aldine ISD and former Early Literacy Leadership Academy (ELLA) Resident Teacher

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