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Using Play to Support and Inspire the Emerging Writer

Sarah Jamal and Morgan Padgett – 1st/2nd grade teachers

"We do not want to teach children something that they can learn by themselves. We do not want to give them thoughts that they can produce by themselves. What we want to do is activate within children the desire and will and great pleasure that comes from being the authors of their own learning."
– Loris Malaguzzi in Reggio Emilia

How Can We Use Our Understanding of Children to Offer Opportunities to Experiment with Writing in Meaningful Ways?

Play is an important mode through which children engage with and make meaning about the world around them. In our experience, meeting children where they are developmentally, by offering opportunities to explore new skills through imagination, collaboration, purpose and laughter, offers a powerful and effective way to learn specific skills such as writing.

Susan Harris McKay, Director of the Portland Children’s Museum Opal School, explains how encouraging play to explore new concepts and skills meets children’s developmental needs: “We know that the social and emotional parts of the brain are intertwined with the cognitive parts of the brain. Research that has shown children who are taught skills through direct instruction and children who learn skills through play, learn those skills equally well. But the children who learn through play have an opportunity to make meaning that leads to greater engagement and a contact with emotion that leads to lasting memory.”

What follows is a story about how we integrate a child’s natural playfulness, curiosity and imagination into the writing process and use the classroom environment to encourage investigation, wonder and authentic expression as children become authors of their own stories.

How Can We Create Environments That Invite Children to Make Meaning of Their Experiences?

Each day, open-ended, meaningful play is encouraged through free exploration with a variety of loose parts. Loose parts are open-ended materials that invite explorations that occur naturally, as opposed to adult directed. A table set up for building stories may have an assortment of round river stones, green pieces of sea glass and a bowl of acorns. Another table may have trays of sand, shells, Kapla blocks and glass beads. Are you drawn to one material over another? Does a shell remind you of a place you have been or inspire a question? A white rock may trigger a memory of a snowy day, a glass bead may stand for a raindrop. Other children may feel drawn to the block area, paint, clay, a bucket of water or outdoor to the forest floor.

As children find connection to materials and engage with those items through dramatic play, construction focused play and social play, context and meaning organically forms. Images and scenes emerge, inspiring words and ideas. This grows into a meaningful narrative.

What materials might inspire a story?


How Can We Best Support a Child in Expanding an Idea into a Story?

Teachers play an important part in this process, observing the story building process, listening deeply and offering individualized guidance that deepens their narrative or helps a story move to the next phase: Tell me about what the rock in the center representsI see your story takes place in a cave. What might it sound like in the cave? I wonder what the character will choose to do next. These questions help children build their stamina, solve problems creatively, expand their vocabulary and practice a variety of literacy skills within a context that is meaningful to them.


Blocks are a storytelling medium that attract a variety of learners. Building together with blocks invites a unique opportunity to tell stories collaboratively. As students build castles, treehouses, towns and marketplaces a teacher might ask: How can you help us understand more about the story here through writing? As structures grow, accessories such as wooden people, trees and other loose parts are chosen to deepen the narrative.

How Can We Support the Full Potential of Children’s Stories While Their Writing Develops?

As stories develop, children are encouraged to write, draw and tell; to translate the abstract to concrete. This strategy works with our youngest and oldest learners and allows for thoughtful differentiation and support. Children who struggle with language development can still easily create and communicate narrative ideas that teachers can scribe. Building stories alongside peers also helps the child who struggles academically, connect to his or her peers through a shared experience, which may be more difficult when working within traditional leveled writing groups.

Children finish pieces of writing at different times. Sometimes encouraging a child to revisit a story is appropriate. To help children return to a story, a teacher may ask: What is your intention today with your story? What materials might you use today? Have you changed your mind about anything in the story?

How Can Sharing and Listening to Each Other's Stories Inspire Children to Engage More Deeply in Their Writing?

Sharing in-progress and completed writing with peers, along with offering feedback, can inspire and motivate other writers. As Karen Gallas writes in her book, “Imagination and Literacy”: “The path to literacy is not a private introverted path. It requires interaction with and validation by a community of peers. Literacy is a process of merging who we believe we are with what we show we can do.” Each day children are invited to share their stories in partnerships, small groups or with the entire class. Through this daily ritual of sharing, children learn that their writing is important and that their stories matter to others.

Children consider what it means to listen to one another and how to give feedback that is meaningful. Does a shared story remind you of something from your own life? How did listening to the story make you feel? Is there a part in the story you want to know more about? Is there a part of the story that inspires you? For many children, the experience of listening intently and reflecting back creates a connection between that child and their peers.

How can we invite emerging writers to take part in a community where everyone is a writer, poet and author?

We use our understanding of children to engage them in writing. Our classroom and outdoor environments offer a multitude of materials that naturally inspire narratives. As teachers, we remain curious about the stories that each child carries in order to invite further expression. We encourage children to tell their stories through a variety of media, including writing, drawing and spoken words. When children share their stories with each other, their stories gain meaning.

"The goal of education is not to increase the amount of knowledge but to create the possibilities for a child to invent and discover."
– Jean Piaget

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