Emergent writing is dependent not only on a child’s exposure to literacy activities from birth, but how they engage with those activities on a day-to-day basis. This podcast discusses the four play ‘types’ that researchers have found fit the majority of children and what this means for their learning.
Last week I had a request regarding emergent writing from Sue, who is an Early Years Advisor in Durham in the UK. So today we’re talking about how 2 and 3 year-olds choose to engage with writing materials, and what that tells us about them and their motivations for writing.
This is a summary of a research paper by Deborah Wells Rowe and Carin Neitzel (the reference is below).
What emergent writing activities do children choose?
They were asking the question: What writing activities do very young children choose in preschool and why do they make these choices?
The point, of course, is that if children choose to do specific types of writing activities often, and then ignore other activities this affects what they’re learning overall. And we might find that in a class of 15 children even though they’re exposed to the same writing materials and similar pre-writing activities their preferences, and how they choose to engage themselves in the literacy opportunities around them, means that in the end they might have very different experiences.
4 basic types of play
Based on previous play research, the supposition is that children will often show a strong preference for one of four types of play:
- they might be social
- they might be creative
- they might like to follow procedure
- or they might be conceptual.
What do our kids enjoy?
As teachers we do our best to get to know what interests our individual children have, because we can then use that as a gateway to engage them in learning. The findings of this research are really an extension of that. It’s not just finding out whether Jane loves bugs and Davy loves to dance, it’s extending that further and finding that there are definite patterns of play that children will engage in over and over and over.
Are we including activities all kids can enjoy?
If we can see that our kids seem to fit into one of those four patterns of play, or perhaps show a preference for one over the other, we can make better decisions about how to engage them in writing activities, and be more aware of what to expect from them. We can’t expect the same outcomes from all children, no matter how much we are pushed from above regarding traditional areas of literacy.
What motivates our kids?
Children have different reasons for engaging with writing activities, and their goals are different, so unless they’re forced into producing some particular product, what we’ll see at the end will be very different, and that’s OK!
Mostly, for 2 & 3 year olds literacy activities are interwoven into play opportunities that children might choose to do, or not do. That’s why looking at their play preferences is so important.
What are our kids’ backgrounds?
Of course, children are influenced by their families and cultural situations, they have unique histories and experiences which shape them, so their preferences are not just a result of their own personalities and interests, but for now we’re just looking at how children like to play.
Let’s take a look at the 4 play orientations. I need to say here that some of these are simplifications of the research, and also that children do engage in lots of different types of play, but research is showing that most children have a marked preference for one particular type and this affects how they approach other parts of their lives, including emergent writing.
1. Conceptual play
- These kids like to focus on materials and their properties.
- They’re interested in specific topics… dinosaurs, trains, space.
- They prefer playing with farm animals, cars and trucks, and books that focus on their topic of interest.
- They like to ask questions and have discussions with adults around their favourite topics.
- Much more than other kids they like to categorise their play materials, they like to compare and contrast their toys.
When it comes to writing they are very happy to engage in open-ended activities like drawing to express their ideas. While most kids like to experiment with writing tools, these tend to just use them as they’re meant to be used, as a tool to share their interests and ideas with others.
They tend to communicate to adults because they need help recording their ideas, rather than because they’re trying to be social. Their ideas come out connected to one another, you can follow the jump from one idea to the next so that they create what might be called a story list.
For these kids, they want to ‘write’ because they want to share their ideas and how they relate to one another, rather than tell someone else’s story or factual information.
2. Procedural play
- These kids like structured activities like board games and materials with a prescribed use like puzzles and blocks.
- They spend lots of time in construction and spatial activities.
- They do a lot of trial-and-error, they test and evaluate alternate ways of doing things.
- They like to problem solve and experiment with cause and effect.
When they hit the writing table, these children excel at conventional writing activities. They love structured activities that have been previously demonstrated by the teacher such as alphabet recognition, cutting activities, writing the alphabet and drawing symbols like smiley faces.
Since adults often put an emphasis on these kinds of activities we could expect that most of our kids would choose to engage with them, but they don’t. Procedural kids do.
They often have lots of written examples of names, shapes, letters and so forth nearby and they use these to double check their work.
When they interact with adults they’re typically looking for praise for the work they’ve produced. Sometimes they’ll give themselves a negative evaluation of their work and give up.
They’ll often resist a teacher’s suggestion that they compose freely or read any of the unconventional marks they may have made. They might say, ‘I can’t’ or ‘I don’t know how.’ And when they do go out on a limb with experimental writing, for example, they’ll still follow the procedure they’ve been shown as closely as possible.
So their purpose in engaging with writing is to learn how to ‘do’ writing.
3. Creative play
- These kids like to experiment with materials.
- They like to transform things.
- They’re not interested in following the teacher-approved procedure, such as using crayons to draw a picture, instead they’ll use the crayons to build a tower.
- They’ll spend a lot of time engaging in fantasy play and take a novel approach to play compared to others.
- They like to investigate and won’t be constrained by ‘proper’ ways to engage with materials.
When it comes to writing these kids love open-ended activities, but they’re not about to use the materials in a traditional way. They’ll spend lots of time experimenting. They might work out which erasers will best rub out pencil marks on different writing surfaces.
They might not talk much and might talk to an adult to comment on their own work rather than ask for help or ask a question. They may even ignore children around them to continue with their own investigations instead.
They may completely ignore any adult’s attempt to get them to engage in traditional activities such as writing their name or tracing letters. They may not be interested in feedback or assistance, their focus is seeing how creative they can be with the materials at hand!
4. Social play
- These kids love dramatic play.
- They love to get out the play clothes and props and pretend to be the mailman or a nurse.
- They use toys or props to act out real life situations and focus on relationships, roles, rules and structures of society.
- They practice social routines and love kitchen sets, occupation play sets, play telephones etc.
- Their play often focuses on building, managing and maintaining relationships with the kids around them.
These children may engage more evenly with a variety of writing tasks than the other 3 groups. This is not so much because they enjoy different tasks equally, but because their motivation is to socialise so they tend to be happy to become involved in whatever their friend is doing.
They enjoy chatting with the adult nearby and are open to suggestions to write freely and to explain, or ‘read’ the marks they’ve made on the paper. They are much more likely to encourage other children to join them. Their purpose is largely social, a way to interact and communicate with others.
A summary of the 4 play types
- Kids with conceptual interests are primarily interested in writing about ideas.
- Creative kids want to experiment with the materials.
- Social kids use writing activities to engage and socialise with others.
- Procedural kids want to produce conventional writing in conventional ways. To quote the research “learning to write is a puzzle to be solved through careful observation and practice.”
What does all this mean?
Please note: The following comments are my own thoughts that rose from thinking through this research. They are not conclusions or recommendations from the researchers. Please leave a comment to let us know what you think about how knowledge of play ‘types’ can be useful in our homes and classrooms.
1. Is there something for everyone in our emergent writing setup?
We can think about the materials and activities we’re offering. Are they open-ended or highly structured? Are they able to be used in some way by all our kids if they’re allowed to follow their natural inclinations? Is there something for everyone or are we leaving some kids out?
2. Are we (or our parents) passing judgement?
Are we judging children, either openly or unintentionally, by the way they interact with the materials we provide? Are we frustrated by the free-spirited experimenter? Or are we frustrated by the kid who won’t write freely because they want to do everything correctly?
3. Are we using the 4 traits in a positive way, to encourage our kids to diversify?
Are we using the positive traits of children from all 4 streams to highlight how different we are and how much we can learn from each other? Can we latch onto the enthusiasm kids have for different types of activities to encourage kids to try something new? For example, if we show how impressed we are by a creative kid’s experiments by encouraging others to do the same, will that open the door for the creative child to join in with others by perhaps talking about their ideas out loud so they can be recorded?
4. How do we talk to parents?
How do we communicate a child’s progression in literacy to parents or other staff in a way that respects a child’s personal play orientation?
5. Will we encourage broader play experiences or leave kids be?
Is a child’s play orientation stopping them from progressing in the traditional sense? And since they’re only little, does that even matter to you, to the child or to their parents? It’s a good thing to think through.
Leave an iTunes review
That’s it for our chat on how young children choose to engage with writing materials and pre-writing activities. If you enjoyed this episode please go to iTunes to leave a rating and review, it helps others find the podcast. Remember, you can find the transcript of this episode, plus the references I used and a summary infographic at Liz’s Early Learning Spot.com. Click on the podcast tab and look for episode 16.
Do you have a request?
Just like Sue did, you can reach out to me with requests or comments in the comment section of my blog, or through my Facebook page which is also called Liz’s Early Learning Spot or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This podcast is part of The Education Podcast Network. Podcasts by educators. Podcasts for educators. To check out more education podcasts go to edupodcastnetwork.com.
Deborah Wells Rowe & Carin Neitzel, 2010. Interest and agency in 2- and 3-year-olds’ participation in emergent writing. Reading Research Quarterly, Vol.45, No.2, pp.169-195. Published by Wiley on behalf of the International Reading Association.
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