Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Editor’s note: While learning at home, children can make progress toward grade-level reading and writing standards. This post is part of an ongoing series designed to help caregivers support children’s and teens’ literacy learning at home.

Many caregivers with young children are struggling to find the balance between working full-time and managing their new, more extensive roles as educators during home learning. This can be daunting for anyone, including experienced teachers. Caregivers should know that they are not expected to fill the shoes of children’s teachers and provide hours of instruction. A few intentional 20-minute blocks of time can provide deep learning opportunities when the scene is set meaningfully.

Researchers Deena Weisberg, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Roberta Golinkoff (2013) describe this type of meaningful learning framework as “guided play,” within which a caregiver can nurture children’s curiosity while helping to grow their literacy and pre-literacy skills. There is a great deal of evidence that this approach has many broader benefits as well (for example, see research by Blair & Razza, 2007). For example, allowing children to take the lead on an activity creates opportunities for building organizational and problem-solving skills. This may look like a child creating a set of rules for a game or planning out how to build a fort. Additionally, imaginative play allows for lots of turn-taking, sharing, and chances to observe others’ emotions. This type of play might look like a child using blocks with another person in a collaborative way or playing make-believe together. These are important skills that impact learning and relationships throughout the lifespan.

The guided play framework involves three elements:

1. Creating an Intentional Environment

This involves preparing for your play session. This can be compared to preparing ingredients before you cook (Weisberg et al., 2013), such as by pulling out the educational toys for children to use or gathering materials for scientific experimenting. It also means putting away things that are not in use so that children can be more easily guided to the selected materials.

2. Allowing Children to Lead the Activity

This can be the most challenging aspect of guided play. Adults often think teaching and learning look like an adult delivering content to a listening child. Indeed, this scenario can produce important knowledge and can be appropriate for certain subjects and situations. However, in a learning scenario led by children, they are encouraged to show curiosity and interact with the materials in their own ways. This creates the opportunity for deeper and more meaningful learning. Adults should support and participate in a way that keeps the play going but does not take charge of its direction.

3. Support Children’s Learning Through Vocabulary Use and Open-Ended Questioning Techniques

Wonder aloud while the children play. Be intentional with language and use specific vocabulary words, including colors, positional words (for example, “above,” “inside,” “behind,” “next to”) and content-specific words (for example, “cylinder,” “rectangle,” “sequence,” “length,” “addition,” “syllable,” “rhyme,” “illustration”). Ask questions about the materials that you chose specifically for the learning activity. Try to weave these questions organically into your child’s play scenario. Ask open-ended questions about characters in books or that your child has created in make believe play (for example, “What would happen if…,” “Why do you think the character…”).

Example Guided Play Activities

Guided play offers a way to spend special time with children while supporting the development of literacy and pre-literacy skills. Here are some example guided play activities.

Snuggle up for Story Time

Have children help create a cozy reading space, perhaps by building a fort or pillow corner, that will attract children to spend time reading. Then, let children pick books to read together—as many as time allows. Ask questions about characters’ feelings, what might happen next in the story, and what your children might do if they were in the same situation. These types of questions encourage higher-level thinking skills. In addition, books are an important source of complex sentence structures and new vocabulary words. Point out new words that are featured in pictures and use the words in sentences about the characters.

Make and Then Play With Homemade Play Dough

Use a favorite recipe or watch a video tutorial about no-cook play dough. Kitchen activities provide opportunities to highlight different kinds of vocabulary used in recipes and to learn measurement skills. After the play dough is made, use it to activate your child’s curiosity by wondering aloud. For example, a caregiver might say, “I wonder if I could make an airplane with this!” or “I wonder if we could write your name.” Then point out the letters in the child’s name or create other letters. Additionally, the use of play dough strengthens the hand muscles required for fine motor skills and writing.

Alphabet Enrichment

Allow children to choose an alphabet-related toy such as plastic or magnetic letters, alphabet blocks, foam letter cards, or alphabet puzzles. While playing with the materials, use the names of the letters to talk about what they are doing, highlighting features of the letters. For example, a caregiver might say, “I see you used the A in your tower! I wonder if that works so well because it is a pointy letter.” Caregivers can also narrate their own choices as they create or play alongside their children.

Using these kinds of questions and vocabulary-introduction techniques during playtime develops children’s literacy and pre-literacy skills in natural ways. With practice, guided play will become second nature. The activities can become valuable tools in children’s learning during and beyond this period of schooling from home.


Blair, C., & Razza, R. P. (2007). Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Development78(2), 647–663. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01019.x

Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh‐Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Guided Play: Where Curricular Goals Meet a Playful Pedagogy. Mind, Brain, and Education7(2): 104–112. https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12015