Doreen Anzalone in her pre-k classroom (Photo: Michele McDonald for Strategies for Children)

A recent column from Education Week — “5 Tips for Talking to Children at Play” – has me thinking about a story that Doreen Anzalone, the early educator who stars in our “Back to School” YouTube production, told me.

She and the children in her pre-kindergarten class were playing with a pile of snow at the water table when one child asked what would happen to the snow. Instead of saying, “It will melt,” as she would have before she studied early childhood, Anzalone asked the children for their predictions. They returned a few hours later to check their hypotheses and saw that the snow had melted. In the process, they learned an important science concept and practiced higher order thinking skills. They improved their background knowledge and increased their vocabulary, which will help them learn to read with comprehension. All because Anzalone knew how to talk to children to promote their learning while they play.

The Ed Week column nicely summarizes how early educators can intentionally embed curriculum in play:

(1)   Use words that children do not know. Oral language development and vocabulary is the foundation of literacy. So, author Marissa Rasavong suggests, “Rather than observing, ‘It’s cold today,’ we can talk about how ‘blustery’ or ‘frigid’ the weather is.”

(2)   Ask good questions. Closed-ended questions close pathways to learning. Open-ended questions open them. “When students are excited to tell us about the structures they have built,” Rasavong writes, “we can extend their thinking by asking, ‘What would happen if we moved this block?’”

(3)   Encourage problem solving. “It is easy to offer shortcut answers when difficulties arise,” Rasavong writes. “But what’s best for students in the long run is to encourage them to solve their own problems.”

(4)   Respond thoughtfully to student behavior. “We can help young learners understand why and how to follow rules—teaching them how to behave rather than just telling them to behave.”

(5)   Plan ahead to facilitate purposeful play.