Play or Practice: Which Matters Most

Friday, January 07, 2022 | 01:18pm

By Lisa Coons, Chief Academic Officer

Tennessee Department of Education


Often as parents, we purchase flash cards or “getting ready” workbooks to help our children prepare for school or to practice school activities at home, but what matters more: structured practice or just simply playing with your child?

As highlighted in a recent study, “The Power of Play,” by the American Association of Pediatrics, a growing trend is for families to replace play with a strong “focus on structured activities that are designed to promote academic results as early as preschool, with a corresponding decrease in playful learning;... [yet], research has provided additional evidence of the critical importance of play in facilitating [family] engagement.” While both types of interaction will support your child’s development, play is an important opportunity for children to develop problem solving and thinking skills they can apply and access in the future.

Play can also be a great way to help your child intentionally notice that the words they speak are actually made up of sounds. We know that early awareness of the individual sounds that make up words is a key foundation to learning to read, and research shows this is an important predictor of later reading success. What if you could help build this sound awareness by playing for a few minutes each day?

Why does play matter?

We naturally play with toddlers and preschool children. We take our children to the playground, the zoos, or sometimes to the museum to learn about the world beyond their neighborhood and to experience new adventures with their families.

Why do we often jump towards “official” pseudo-school activities when we have time with our children? Instead of practicing “school” at home, we can create joyful play activities as families.

What is playing with sounds?

We can play with sounds when we are driving somewhere, walking in the neighborhood, or even hanging out on the couch. Here is a way to add sounds play to your day:

I spy something that starts with the <t> sound. Can you see something that starts with <t>? I see a tree.

Good I also see a turtle. I see grass. Which one has the <t> sound like tree. Yes, turtle. Good job.

Games such as “I Spy” and “The Alphabet Game” are easy ways to add sounds play. Here are more ideas of games.

Here is another way to play with sounds.

See the cat . . . Cat has beginning, middle, and end sounds. Can you hear the <c> and the <a> and the <t>? 

What if we take off the beginning sound <c> and change it to <b>?

What word does that make?  Bat…  <b>, <a>, <t>, bat, bat.  Great job.

What happens if we take off the <b> at the beginning and add a <h> instead. What word does that make?

<h>, <a>, <t> = hat, hat. Good, hat.

Let’s try a few more. What if we take off the <h> and add a <m> to the beginning?

<m>, <a>, <t> = mat, mat. Good, mat.

We just played with the beginning sounds of words mat and cat and bat that all have the same ending sounds, which means they rhyme. When we change the beginning sounds, we can make different words. Isn’t that fun?

Let’s try one more rhyme. Let’s take off <m> and add a <s> the beginning.

<s>, <a>, <t> = sat, sat. Good, sat. It is fun to play with beginning sounds!

If your child is good at rhyming and ending sounds. You can extend the sounds game.

What if we also play with the end sound like we change the beginning sound? What if we change the end sound instead?  Our last word was <s> <a> <t>, sat, sat.  We can change the <t> in sat to a <m>.

So now we have <s> <a> <m>. Sam, Sam. Good, Sam.

We can change the <t> at the end of bat too.

So now we have <b> <a> <m>. Bam, bam. Good, bam.

There are lots of ways you can manipulate sounds to help your child begin to hear how sounds are the building blocks of words. Practicing sounds in short games helps your child start to become intentional at hearing sounds and listening for sounds. This skill helps your child begin to become more aware that sounds and letters build words and helps them learn to read.

As teachers, we also need to help reinforce our families’ opportunities to play. Instead of sending home flash cards and worksheets, let’s send rhyming games and other sounds activities for our preschool and kindergarten students to play with their families. When we provide simple activities to our families that equip them to play with sound, we empower our families to partner with us. As educators, we can help set up play activities for our families that help families become partners in learning. 

Families, play.  Take time with your children. Show them that playing with sounds can be fun. We often have such little time with our children between their busy schedules and our commitments. We should continue to take our children to zoos, parks, and museums, but we also can transform play with our children in a few easy ways to help them hear sounds, see how letters build words and reading just like blocks build buildings and imaginary worlds.