Play is a child's primary learning tool (Owocki, 2002) and the most important learning activity in the preschool classroom (McGee & Richgels, 2000). Children naturally and spontaneously engage in many forms of play. Katz (2001) says that play consists of activities that children find enjoyable and participate in voluntarily to have fun. Such activities include building with blocks, playing with water, digging in mud or sand, molding clay, and pretending. Although some play may be solitary, much play is socially interactive and requires such skills as negotiating, problem solving, and decision making, along with using language purposefully. When two children decide to construct a tower of blocks, for example, they may use language to decide which blocks to use, where to place them, and how high to build the tower before it might collapse.

In this section, we focus on dramatic play and its potential for developing language and literacy. Dramatic play occurs when children pretend to be something or someone else (Birckmayer, 2002). A child can engage in dramatic play alone (for example, when a child pretends to be a truck driver), but it often occurs through social interactions. By simulating real-life experiences, dramatic play enables children to imitate grown-up behaviors and to try out alternative courses of action. Your role is to allow children to take the initiative and develop their own situations, but to enter subtly into the play on occasion to facilitate the continuation of the scenario and promote language interactions.

Much dramatic play occurs at centers, which may be any setting familiar to the child, such as the kitchen, a fast-food restaurant, a bank, or a beauty shop. To promote literacy development, each center should contain print materials that are often found in such places. Before children use each center, you should explain and model the different materials so that children will know what they are and how to use them. Of course, materials must be safe (for example, no sharp edges on cans) and authentic but perhaps not valid (for example, only canceled checks with account numbers obliterated). You may keep prop boxes that hold center materials (Jackman, 1997) and introduce them when the time is appropriate, such as when the center is related to a field trip or a theme.