Learning to read in a play based environment

We first need to understand what reading is. Reading is a multifaceted process involving word recognition, comprehension, fluency, and motivation, without each of these, genuinely understanding a book or the print around us becomes complicated and confusing. Children need to know what words are, to sound them out and to recognise others as a whole, i.e., the, I, my, and, that. As the English language is not wholly phonetical, it is essential that children have a grasp of both of these concepts to decode the words in front of them. Comprehension is understanding what we are reading, a child may have learnt to ‘read’ a favourite book, however, are they are able to talk about the characters, re-tell the story in their, own words and pick out individual words and understand what they might mean. Coordinating identifying words and making meaning so that reading is automatic and accurate shows fluency, is there tone and rhythm to what they are reading?

Now that we have broken down the parts that make up a ‘reader’, how does this fit within a play based environment? This is where motivation comes in. If a child is motivated to learn, they will and it will be engaging and meaningful to them, they will push past frustrations, challenging themselves to learn more.

Understanding that learning doesn’t always flow from instruction is the first step to understanding how children learn through play.  Learning in young children has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, and body-based activities. It has very little to do with structured activities, which may actually impair a child’s ability to set and reach goals independently. (Laura Grace Weldon, Educating Too Early).

Why play?

Play is the primary engine of human growth; it’s universal – as much as walking and talking. Play is the way children build ideas and how they make sense of their experiences and feel safe. (Nancy Carlsson-Paige, 2015, speaking at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps awards). In the short and long term, play benefits cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. When play is fun and child-directed, children are motivated to engage in opportunities to learn. (A Research Summary on Play and Learning, Dr Rachel E. White, 2012).



Understanding these two statements gives us stronger insight into why learning to read in a play based environment is going to benefit children throughout their education journey. By setting learning within the framework of play, children are able to have agency over when they are ready to learn, and this enables the process to become more natural and less stressful for all. Each child will show their readiness at different points and in various ways, this does not mean as teachers we sit back and wait with no input or offers of ideas. It means that we create an environment that encourages learning, stimulates children to reach further, think and learn new skills and concepts. We respect each child’s own journey, those that show readiness are given opportunities to explore words and their meanings. Those who are yet to show interest do not need to be ‘caught up’ or put into reading support programmes, it merely means that need to grow in other areas, social skills, self-control, listening, or working cooperatively, all of these skills are essential throughout life and form a strong base for learning.

We can not push children to learn something their minds and bodies are not yet ready for, ‘there is no evidence to support a widespread belief that children must read in prekindergarten or kindergarten to become strong readers and achieve academic success’.(Nancy Carlsson-Paige Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin Joan Wolfsheimer Almon).

Multiple studies have shown that those children who are in academic programmes don’t maintain their initial advantage and in some studies, it has shown to be harmful to children. However, those in a play based environment do and this knowledge forms the basis of how I believe reading should be taught.

What does it look like?

In a play based classroom, books are always accessible, teachers read and re-read stories, asking children to re-tell the story, to change the ending or characters. Songs, chants and rhymes are used within routines, change over periods or in their everyday play, patterns are pointed out for the children to make the connection between rhyme and letter sounds.


Children are asked to talk about their experiences, explain their thinking and share ideas, we encourage them to record these, sounding out the letters that they can hear, they are encouraged to be an author, owners of their work.  Writing is used to meet specific needs within their play, i.e. writing a letter, putting a sign on a shop or making a list, this gives ownership and purpose to what they are doing. The challenge of learning to decode and write is put into a context that makes sense for them.

By following the interests of our students and bringing letters and sounds into children’s play we can meet them in their space, a space that is meaningful, engaging and purposeful.

Side note

I don’t have all the answers to bringing play into a Kindergarten classroom. I have been teaching Early Years for many years but have only recently moved back to kindergarten and I am still finding that balance between play and meeting school expectations. The more I research and connect with others around the world on the same journey I know that learning through play is the right path.

I would love to hear from others on the same journey.


  1. Helen, as I wrote on Twitter, you have a strong voice (and we know strong opinions about play!) so I am really glad to see that you are choosing blogging as a way to reflect and get to grips with the balance between your personal beliefs and school expectations. You make some very valid points in this post as given your strength as a play advocate and indeed ambassador I know that you will be mindful about how you progress always remaining true to what is best for students and their learning. Please keep sharing your wisdom!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. HI, I do love the respect that you honestly feel towards children and the way the learn best. Your curiosity to find authentic ways to implement powerful provocations through play in the classroom are inspiring.
    Thanks for sharing.


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