In the field of emergent literacy, perhaps the hottest topic among specialists in early childhood development is the importance of play for infant brain development. Adults can engage even newborns in activities that gradually foster reading readiness, thus setting infants on a journey of lifelong learning. But what do children's games, which we associate with playpens, backyards, and nursery school, have to do with libraries, and why should librarians add them to their already full professional plates?
It's as simple as ABC. Despite the research linking play to early literacy, it is still difficult to get parents and caregivers to make time for play. Why? Many adults perceive play as the opposite of work; because it's fun, some parents believe it has little intrinsic learning value. But play is a young child's work and primary learning activity, and the means by which emergent literacy is fostered. That's where we come in: Librarians who serve young children and their families have both an opportunity and a responsibility to incorporate play into their early childhood offerings, and to teach parents how crucial it is to prekindergartners' intellectual development.
Specifically, emergent literacy is the constellation of skills young children accumulate through hands-on, ageappropriate, playful experiences involving listening, speaking, being read to, handling books, and using writing implements before they are ready for formal reading and writing instruction.
Research has shown that a child's brain rapidly develops from birth through the ages of 3-4. Through the works of psychologists Jean Piaget, Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, and David Fernie, we also know that children develop an understanding of themselves and others, learn about their physical world, and learn to communicate with others through play.
Piaget and Vygotsky were among the first to link play with a child's cognitive development. In particular, Piaget's research shows that play behaviors become more complex and abstract as children progress through early childhood, promoting four major skills that are crucial to the development of literacy:
* Underlying cognitive skills, the ability to learn deliberately;
* Development of symbolic representation;
* Oral language;
* Introduction of content and related literacy skills and concepts.
Ring around the resources
Public libraries can help promulgate emergent-literacy skills by providing four key services: age-appropriate spaces, materials, programming, and the opportunity for parents to gain skills through modeling.
During the past 20 years, public libraries have expanded children's services to include collections and programs for very young children (infant-3 years) and their parents and caregivers. Board, cloth, and big books; simple puzzles; and parenting materials in a variety of formats are now standard in most children's departments. However, the library's physical environment is just as important as the materials offered. Because environment plays such an important role in emergent literacy, it is vital for libraries to create spaces that encourage young children and their parents to engage in ageappropriate activities.
Such an area might include a colorful rug spread out with books, puzzles, and multihued blocks for sorting and stacking. A creative play area--such as a storefront, post office, or puppet stage--encourages families to engage in symbolic play. A train or Lego table offers toddlers the opportunity to play alongside others--what early-child educators refer to as parallel play since toddlers and some preschoolers are still learning how to interact with their peers and share with them.
In library spaces set up for play, parents aren't worried about "shushing" their children; instead, they are talking, reading, singing, and playing together. According to Edythe O. Cawthorne in the April 1975 School Library Journal ("Toys and Games--The First Reading"), public libraries with age-appropriate spaces that in clude toys and books are conveying to parents that play is the chief learning activity of preschool children, and that toys and games are their first reading tools. …