Social Studies "Play" in Kindergarten

Linda D. Labbo

Traditionally, most forms of playtime that occur in elementary school have been viewed, primarily, as meeting nonacademic, social, or athletic purposes. However, various forms of play can also contribute to young children's language, literacy, and social studies learning. Consider, for example, how the non-structured free play on the school playground is related to the socially-negotiated development of complex oral language discourse. At any given time during recess, a teacher may hear children's voices--in resonant laughter over a shared joke, in forceful negotiation over how to play a game, in anger over disputes of territorial boundaries, or in quiet conversation sharing a secret with friends.

Many early childhood education specialists believe that the structured playtime that occurs in a well-designed play center can provide rich opportunities for young children to construct knowledge related to both the social studies and literacy.1 A case in point is highlighted in the following description of a play episode.

How the Students Play

Five-year-old Francis sits in the kindergarten "travel agency" play center cradling a toy telephone receiver on her shoulder as she adds two wavy squiggles beneath a line of numbers she has already written on a pad of paper. As she speaks into the pretend phone, she places a check by each scribbled line. "Okay. You can leave on your trip today. You [can] go on a train or on a plane or on a bus. (She pauses and pretends to listen.) [You want to go on a] train? You [can] come see me to get your ticket, okay? Have a nice day."

After she hangs up the phone, Marquise and Atresia, who each carry a small suitcase and a fistful of play money, immediately enter the play center. "We want the tickets... the tickets for the train, please," Atresia explains. Francis reaches across the table to several piles of brightly-colored rectangles and picks up three--two child-designed train "tickets" and a child-designed map. After a brief exchange of the play money for the pretend tickets and map, Francis says, "The map shows you where to go. Have a nice trip." When Marquise and Atresia exit, Francis crumbles up the "phone message" and tosses it into a trash can.

When the play episode is over, the three children discuss and then dictate a story about their experiences to a teaching assistant who writes down their words. Francis draws an illustration to accompany the story, which she is eager to share during circle time. Later, the story and illustration are posted on the bulletin board for other students to enjoy.

What the Teacher Knows

The classroom teacher, Ms. Martin, is to be applauded for providing classroom experiences that offer children rich opportunities to acquire knowledge about written language systems and social studies concepts in developmentally appropriate ways. She knows from observing these children at the play center that playing has afforded them with unique opportunities to build schema about work place functions of literacy, the nature of work in a service industry, various forms of transportation and travel, key principles of economics, the purposes of maps, the ephemeral nature of notes, and various types of communication related to business.

Ms. Martin is not concerned that Francis "writes" with wavy lines instead of correctly-spelled words because she knows that, when children engage in sociodramatic play, it does not matter whether or not they are skillful and accomplished in the activities they pretend to do. On the contrary, what matters is that the children have risk-free opportunities to socially construct concepts that provide the foundation for their literacy development and their acquisition of social studies concepts.

Ms. Martin knows, from an emergent literacy perspective,2 that young children use various nonconventional forms of print (e.g., drawing, scribble, letter strings, and invented spelling) as they develop concepts that are vital to their use of conventional forms of literacy. She knows that when children play in carefully designed play centers, they are engaged in serious academic conceptual work. Perhaps even more importantly, Ms. Martin understands the importance of involving children in the process.

Five Steps to an Integrated Play Center

Many teachers routinely set up thematically-related play centers in their classrooms. However, many teachers do not customarily invite their students to help design, implement, and respond to such centers. Figure 1 suggests five steps that may serve as a guideline for orchestrating meaningful sociodramatic play that incorporates literacy and social studies concepts.

Designing the Play Center

Step 1. When initially designing a play center, the teacher selects, displays, and shares with students a thematic set of children's fiction and nonfiction that is related to social studies objectives. For example, Ms. Martin began by selecting books on travel and vacations that could provide information about geography, transportation, map skills, and economic principles. She introduced the theme and helped children build their vocabulary by reading and discussing books such as Arthur's Family Vacation and On the Go. Because the books were displayed with covers showing on an open-shelved book case, the children were free to revisit key concepts and retell stories to each other.

Step 2. The teacher invites students to participate in designing the center. The purpose of this step is for teacher and students to have opportunities to raise questions, find facts, and keep records. In other words, students and teachers collaborate to conduct a serious, research-oriented inquiry in developmentally appropriate ways. After Ms. Martin invited students to help her design and set up a travel agency center, they brainstormed a list of questions about how travel agencies work. They used information from a variety of sources including a fact-finding trip to a travel agency, interviews with experts who visited the class, supplementary books suggested by the school media specialist, and electronic or digital sources (e.g., the Internet, e-mail, CD-ROMs, and videos). These activities gave Ms. Martin the opportunity to model research methods (such as, generating questions, making up categories of information, and taking notes from interviews) and to make use of conventional forms of literacy as the data took form on large chart paper that was displayed on a bulletin board.

Implementing the Center

Step 3. Children synthesize and apply the accumulated information as they help plan and equip the center. Ms. Martin used a diagram of the play center and cutouts of various pieces of furniture to help children create a map to guide the center design. In addition, she helped the children apply what they had learned about the purpose and forms of office work as they made literacy props (e.g., tickets, time schedules, note pads and pens for phone messages, travel maps, a cardboard model of a computer). Children also received guidance in translating the lists, sketches, diagrams, and maps from two dimensional paper into a three dimensional reality in the play center.

Step 4. The teacher introduces three types of play: guided, supported, and free. Guided play is used with children who are unsure about role playing dialogue and activities that may be appropriate for a particular scenario. In these instances, children may need to have a brief pre-play conference with the teacher to discuss roles, activities, and use of props. Another form of play is supported play, where the teacher briefly assumes and models the role of a customer or travel agent. These first two forms of play should be used sparingly because the overall goal is for children to encounter social studies and literacy concepts as they engage in free play.

Responding to the Center

Step 5. The teacher helps children extend, celebrate, and reflect on their playful experiences so they can have opportunities to refine or elaborate on their newly acquired schema. In many classrooms, children play in thematic sociodramatic play centers, but do not have occasions to make connections between their free play and the topics discussed in center time or the work they do in art and writing centers. By inviting them to draw, write about, or dictate their playful experiences, children have important occasions for expressing their ideas to an authentic audience, their peers. When an adult records their words, children also have important occasions to make connections between the spoken and the written word.

In Closing

By following the five steps introduced in this article, teachers have unique opportunities to model forms and conventions of literacy in authentic and functional ways. Children have unique opportunities to engage in meaningful social studies research with a variety of splendid sources. Furthermore, teachers and children have occasions to organize, translate, and apply knowledge gained through their various methods of inquiry. And, children have opportunities to develop crucial insights into literacy as they dictate, write, read, and share information about their experiences. As the example of Ms. Martin's classroom suggests, teachers can integrate the language arts and methods of inquiry in ways that foster children's simultaneous development of literacy and social studies concepts.

Finally, Ms. Martin's classroom learning environment fosters a spirit of motivation and collaboration because there is a genuine feeling of well-being among the children. Children like Francis, Marquise, and Atresia have learned that kindergarten is a safe place that allows them to explore their world, learn content, and experiment with forms and purposes of literacy by doing what comes naturally-- playing.


1. L. M. Morrow, "Preparing the Classroom Environment to Promote Literacy during Play," Early Childhood Research Quarterly 5 (1990): 537-554.

2. S. B. Neuman and K. Roskos, "Literacy Objects as Cultural Tools: Effects on Children's Literacy Behaviors in Play," Reading Research Quarterly, 27 (1992): 202-225.

3. E. Sulzby and W. H. Teale, "Emergent Literacy," in R. Barr, M. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, and P. Pearson, eds., Handbook of Reading Research: Volume II (New York: Longman, 1991), 727-757.

Children's Books

Brown, M. Arthur's Family Vacation. Boston, MA: Little Brown & Company, 1993.

Morris, A. On the Go. New York: A Mulberry Paperback Book, 1990.

About the Author

Linda D. Labbo is an associate professor in the Department of Reading Education at The University of Georgia.

Figure 1

Five Steps to Integrating Social Studies and Literacy in a Kindergarten Play Center

Designing the Center:

1. Select and Share Thematic Books

2. Raise Questions, Find Facts, and Keep Records

Implementing the Center:

3. Plan and Equip the center

4. Introduce Guided, Supported, and Free Play

Responding to the Center:

5. Extend, Celebrate, and Reflect on Experiences