We spoke with Emily Andrews, our early childhood learning specialist about a question on the mind of many parents: How can I get my child ready to read by the time they go to kindergarten?

Our society is obsessed with kindergarten readiness. You never hear anyone talk about toddler readiness or fourth grade readiness. Those kids are left to be as ready as they are for whatever that year holds. Yes, it’s nice to have some foundational skills in place when entering “formal” school for the first time, but it truly is developmental and should be treated as such. 

Yes, there are letter recognition puzzles, games, and the good old alphabet song. Are those things enough for preschool aged children to ensure they are ready for kindergarten and reading?

While those things are great and I do recommend that you use them playfully on occasion with your child, the number one thing that will help your child be ready for reading is PLAY! There have been countless articles and research over these last couple decades extolling the virtues of play as the most important and impacting predictor for later learning and academic success.

Photo of how to get your child ready to read

In fact there’s a term for it: Playful learning. And playful learning exists on a spectrum. 

  • At one end you have completely child centered play, with no facilitation, no adult scaffolding or support, just open-ended good old fashioned kids being kids in a kid world. 
  • On the other end you have play that is still led by the child but is more heavily guided and influenced by the adult. 
  • The adult may bring the concept or theme to the table, let the children decide what they want to do, and then scaffold their play by adding vocabulary, props, books, and other learning materials to add to their learning on the subject. 
  • Both types of play, both ends of this playful learning spectrum, are beneficial to a child’s overall learning. 

You might be thinking: “Of course my child plays. But I want them to be ready to read! Shouldn’t I just get a nice little reading program and do ten minutes of reading practice each morning? How can that hurt?”

I don’t recommend that for a nursery or preschool aged child unless your child is begging for it, and even then, I’d wait until they are 5-6 years old and you can follow along with their school reading program. Your preschool aged child might like an at-home reading program at first because it's “a big kid thing” and new. But, most likely after a day or a week or two your child will resist this “special reading work.” Why? Because it isn’t age appropriate and doesn’t appeal to how children at this age are meant to learn. In fact, it may put them off of reading and letters a bit, taking you back a step… which brings us back to PLAY. 

So how and why is PLAY the thing that will help my child learn to read?

  1. Oral language: Play supports the development of oral language, which includes both expressing and understanding. When two children play with a doctor kit, they use words to talk about their play ideas and develop articulation ability, verbal reasoning, and vocabulary that is required to express their ideas verbally. Plus, they use their receptive language skills to share and listen to ideas.
  2. Understanding symbolism: Symbolic play lays the foundation for understanding letters as symbols. When a child learns to pretend that a wooden block is a cell phone as they play, they are paving the way for learning that letters are symbols that represent sounds. It’s a more hands-on approach to learning this concept and they do need that hands-on learning opportunity before they are truly ready to make the leap to symbols on paper.
  3. Storytelling: Imaginative play is a form of storytelling. Children are creating a narrative, with characters, roles, and problems to solve. They are learning about the formation and relevance of stories.
  4. Use of reading and writing materials as part of play: Children play with, and play out, what they see in the world and they do see adults writing and reading. So, when left to their own devices, they do begin to include these elements in their play independently. You will often see children using inventive spelling to make signs for their block structures or ice cream stands or holding magazines and pretending to read them while riding an imaginary train. In these moments they are forming an understanding about these grown up items, their function, and beginning to practice using them in a socio-cultural context. 

How can parents leverage playful learning at home to support their child’s later reading success?

Now that you know the importance of playful learning, you can start to think about incorporating this element into your child’s home play environment. Use these tips to leverage playful learning at home so you can support your child’s reading success when the time is right.

Provide designated time and space for open (screen free) play time. 

  • Do not ask them if they want to play with their blocks. Invite them to play by having the blocks out and ready with some new play materials paired with them when they walk in the door after school. 
  • It doesn’t need to be elaborate, just make it clear that it's play time by proactively putting play materials out (and maybe include a snack to help them settle in).

Find informational books based around their interests. 

  • If your child has been interested in a given theme, say firefighters, dinosaurs, or playing restaurant, get some informational books and include them in your play invitation. 
  • For example, if your child loves playing restaurant, put out a real menu or two, with photos included if possible, as well as a pad of paper to take orders. 
  • If they love dinosaurs, get some dinosaur books at the library and instead of just reading them at bedtime, pop one up on the kitchen counter with a lump of clay and a few plastic dinosaurs. Nothing fancy, just an added layer to deepen the learning.
Photo of kids reading

Incorporate a sensory component to any learning material that you want to introduce. 

  • Instead of just putting out a letter puzzle, also include playdough so your child can stamp letters shapes in the dough. 
  • Or give your child a cup of dry erase markers with their magnatiles. 
  • If offering your child letter cards, put them on a tray with shaving cream so they can try to draw letters in the shaving cream with their finger. 
  • If your child doesn’t take the bait, if they don’t want to make letters, LET IT GO. Let them explore. Like all things, the more you push, the more averse they will be. They will get there in their own way in their own time.

Arts and crafts materials lend themselves to literacy. 

  • Set up a book making station or a letter writing table. Sometimes it doesn’t go further than stapling paper, that’s where they are. That’s OK. With repeated exposure the stapler will lose some of its allure and they will naturally want to move to create something that more closely resembles a real book. 
  • Don’t push for a finished product. Let them think with you about what else their book needs. A cover picture? Words? Let them choose what it needs and do it their way. 
  • If they are working at a drawing table and exploring envelopes to play a game of mail carrier, it may be all about licking the envelopes. That’s fine! You can recycle those blank pages stuffed into envelopes later. Next time you open mail you can show them what’s inside and then see if their next letter writing adventure includes drawing or imaginative writing. Just go with where they are.

The most important advice is to stay flexible. If your child doesn’t want to play the way you had envisioned, follow their lead, and find a new way to build in the skills. By maximizing children’s own play choices and promoting wonder and curiosity, playful learning, both open and guided, will allow children to strengthen their foundational skills needed for reading. 

And remember: You don’t have to throw away those nice acrylic letters you bought on Etsy because your child isn’t ready for formal reading yet. Instead, maybe freeze them in a tray of water and put them on a sensory table with some other fun tools and play materials. Layer up the learning opportunities with imaginative play and sensory fun and the reading will come when it's time!

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