I was listening to an interesting podcast today on my run and on it a professor from the University of California at Berkley was discussing learning, specifically the role play has in learning. This is a topic I know a lot about, but I am so passionate about it that I am always searching for new tidbits to add to the little library in my head.
On the podcast, the professor talked about how robots when given a chance to play with tasks they will be programmed to do end up being more efficient than the robots that were simply programmed. Similarly, she spoke about an experiment where 4-year-olds were given a toy to play with; some were allowed to explore while others were specifically introduced to the toy and only one of its functions as “The toy that does XYZ.” As you may have guessed the toy that was introduced as the toy with a specific purpose was only used for that specific purpose and exploration was non-existent. You may be asking what does any of this have to do with alphabet activities for 3-year-olds?
Play has a significant role in learning, and one way that preschool teachers can help encourage exploration is to provide flexible, independent activities for the children to play with that require little to no adult intervention. I absolutely think there are times for direct instruction, though limited in the early years. We need a lot of activities that encourage, excite, and engage our students so that they construct their knowledge through play. Here are some fun independent play ideas that are all about letters.
Painting with Letter Cookie Cutters. This is WIDE open. Children can try to write words if that is where they are at developmentally. Others can cover the paper in their first initial. The rest simply finger paint if the letters are not at all exciting to them yet.
Letter Sensory Tub – I love digging in the sensory table with students. This is where conversations start but also I love to see how differently children use this center. Some sort items, some order them noticing which are small and which are medium and large, and other just dig. Adding letters to yours is novel and visually stimulating. Also,this is a great place to assess children’s letter recognition if needed. As they dig through the letters children will often naturally call out the letter names.
Building with Letters – adding letters to blocks is a fun way to add a dimension to your blocks area. Some children will notice, others will simply build not noticing the letters at all. Don’t push it. Let children explore and follow their lead; they will make it obvious what they are and aren’t ready for.
Alphabet Playdough – Using tools like letter cookie cutters and tiles with letters on them are a great way to create a literacy activity that can be differentiated as the child plays, by the child.
Alphabet Discovery Bottle – Oh how I loved watching my 3 year olds play with this last year. They often looked for their first initial, but as the year wore on I would observe them recognizing other ones too!
Fishing for Letters – this is a classic. That little guy is now 11 and not too little. Those fish survived dozens of children playing with them! This brings in imaginative play and preschoolers not only like that. Also, they thrive when they tap into their imaginations with the tools we provide. We just have to resist the urge to show them HOW to use the tools. Especially if they found a good way that isn’t exactly our way.
Post Office Letter Sorting – we made a pretty elaborate setup, but this idea can easily be simplified like this. Like the fishing this activity taps into pretend play. Allowing a time when children test out roles they aren’t yet ready for but are exploring at their level.
Need more alphabet ideas? Check out this post with 50 Great Alphabet Activities for kids.
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