Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Importance of Play in Education

Hello, I am Julie Della Torre, Master Storyteller with Storytelling Arts, Inc. I have been working as a Professional Storyteller since 1985 and have 9 years of elementary school teaching experience along with the study of child development and curriculum. More information about our work in storytelling and education can be found on the Storytelling Arts website

It's September and schools are starting up. What are we thinking about? A friend sent me this article about the importance of play in education.

The article deals with play in the early years, but I would like to broaden the discussion and think about the importance of play in the older grades, and in truth, even in ourselves. When our minds are at play is when the real learning takes place. Einstein played with numbers and thought pictures. It is said that Jacques Cousteau came up with the idea for the aqualung while playing.

You may be asking, “What does storytelling have to do with play?” I contend that stories are the foundation of play and that language is the vehicle of play. I believe this to be true when play takes place in the doll corner, or in a literature discussion group, or in a play writing or poetry writing session. Some of my colleagues can certainly add their own stories to that!

Research shows that children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than nonplayers, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking (see article above)

I have also been reading Vivian Paley’s book, A Child’s Work: the Importance of Fantasy Play.

…fantasy play is the glue that binds together all other pursuits, including the early teaching of reading and writing skills…. It is in the development of their themes and characters and plots that children explain their thinking and enable us to wonder who we might become as their teachers. If fantasy play provides the nourishing habitat for the growth of cognitive, narrative, and social connectivity in young children, then it is surely the staging area for our common enterprise: an early school experience that best represents the natural development of young children. (p.8)

Storytellers bring folk tales and fairy tales into the classroom in a unique way; different from books. Tellers and listeners alike engage differently with the oral story as opposed to the read story. The old folk literature deals with real developmental issues children are working through. And when children are given time to play, they are given time to play out their own interpretations. And as the children are reinterpreting the stories they are doing so in language.

Other studies have shown that by the age of three, many children of poverty are already behind in readiness for school, one big concern being little exposure to language.

They (the children) need a solid introduction to books, which most middle-class children have from infancy onwards, and they need to hear language used in conversation, storytelling, song, and verse. Equally important, they need to use language. Play is the foremost way that children use the language they are hearing. (Crisis in the Kindergarten, above)

Through this language play children are using rhymes, rhythm, metaphors, spells, new vocabulary and fresh concepts. They are learning to form and speak questions and opinions, and learning how to hold conversations. They are practicing oral language.

Think of the kindergarten child using ‘meadow’ in his play after hearing The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Or the fifth grader who ponders whether the idea of a magic potion gave a character ‘hope’ in The Tiger’s Whisker. When do we use such beautiful language in today’s world?

I have notebooks full of examples.

  • The girl who writes the following poem after hearing The Gunniwolf:

Brendan, Brendan,

Why for you move

  • The whole second grade class dancing in a Congo line to gym class chanting The Name of the Tree is Ungali!

Listening to a story together builds community. There is a shared story we can all reference in play. A friend, a Kindergarten teacher, tells a story.(I had told Tom Tit Tot in her classroom.) She reports, “I feel so badly. I always mix up Frankie’s name. I had his older brother and I keep mixing them up. I hate not remembering his name. But today, I just laughed with him when I made the mistake and said, “nimmy, nimmy, not your name is Frankie!” A shared story playfully eases the situation.

However, we as professional storytellers are not in the classrooms during creative play, whether discussion, poetry play, or block play. The professional teacher is the one who will take the shared oral texts and create an environment where creative language is allowed to flourish. This collaboration between two professionals bringing rich stories and language to students, laying the foundation for creative play, can’t be beat.

Next week I will be thinking about how storytelling encourages children to deal with deep, profound developmental issues.


  1. I’m Paula Davidoff, another storyteller affiliated with Storytelling Arts. Most of the students who hear my stories are between the ages of 12 and 17. As I was reading Julie’s ideas about the importance of creative play in education, I began to wonder about the role of play in the education of older children. How do kids engage in play as they grow older? How important is it to their social and intellectual growth and development? Here are some of my (scattered) thoughts.

    The middle and high school age children whom I teach do most of their playing in a couple of ways: organized team sports and video games. The former are frequently touted as important tools for developing character and social awareness, but also infamously contribute to intolerance and social stratification; the latter are often vilified as the origin of social ills from childhood obesity to juvenile delinquency, but they also allow kids the freedom to indulge their fantasy life while challenging them intellectually and morally (J.P. Gee, But whatever negative and positive values these types of play may have, they very rarely co-exist with academic learning in the classroom. Sometimes I think teachers look askance at the idea of adolescent play as a concept too frivolous or too sinister to bring to the classroom. However, teens have such active fantasy lives, such fertile imaginations that play would seem a perfect medium for them to discover and develop new ideas, and to challenge and ponder old ones.

    This summer my colleague, playwright Carolyn Hunt, and I taught a group of 19 teenage girls as they wrote and learned to perform an original play in which they interpreted personal stories by comparing and intertwining them with fairytale motifs. Of course, the acts of creative writing and performance are, themselves, creative play, but we also used games: physical games, memory games, and theatre games, as part of our daily workshop routine. It was a real eye-opener for me to see how deeply engaged the girls became in playing games. For the most part, they shed their shyness and self-consciousness within minutes of starting to play. They played hard, shrieking with laughter as they chased and saved each other in “Cat and Mouse,” or furiously scribbling against the clock the names all of the objects they could remember in the “Kim” game. These interludes of play opened them for the more academic exercises of reading and writing that were also part their daily routine. Furthermore, the goals and activities of the games shed light on the dramas they were writing. The games seemed to deepen students’ insight and awareness. Playing hard helped them work hard, and it seemed to make their work more meaningful. I can think of, at least, two reasons for this: playing allowed the girls to step away from their habitual, teenage narcissism, and it broke them out of their school-room habits of thinking. Without these barriers, learning became more intrinsic to living and, consequently, they felt an investment in what they were doing that they may not usually associate with language arts learning in school.

    And the connection to storytelling? Well, as Julie says, “stories are the foundation of play…” Just as with Julie’s younger students, literature allows teens to enter the world of fantasy without restraint. It provides them opportunities to create and understand their identity, to vicariously interact with “the other,” to consider moral issues and learn the results of moral choices. Oral literature, the tale told by a storyteller offers all of this and more, because the storyteller makes the tale interactive. She adds visual, kinetic, and inter-social aspects to the experience of literature. And, for many teens, she is also giving them, just as Julie gives her little ones, a rare exposure to varied, beautiful, and complex language presented in a meaningful context.

  2. Paula,
    I have seen your work with teens ‘playing with their fantasy world’ and it seems to me that you are leading them to give voice to this fantasy (which may or may not be healthy) and through stories and mythology you are giving them the opportunity to ‘play’ creatively with different consequences and solutions.

    This made me think of another question. What is going on before you get them? Do you think we could consider it ‘play’ when the girls dabble in drugs, alcohol and sex? Are they trying on new selves and images just as the little ones ‘try on’ being a mommy or baby or lion? If so, this is certainly more dangerous play.

    In some ways I take exception to your statement, “ The middle and high school age children whom I teach do most of their playing in a couple of ways: organized team sports and video games” It’s funny, but I have never thought of organized sports or video games as play. What constitutes play? What is the definition of play? I believe that some of the foundations of play include that it be voluntary, intrinsically motivated, pleasurable and enjoyable and done with a sense of freedom. Yes, organized sports are physical and the video games are enjoyable, but all the same, they are not at all imaginative. Some one else has set an end goal. Gee says about video games“…it is something about how games are designed to trigger learning that makes them so deeply motivating.” I agree that motivation is a big part of play and learning.. However, someone else has still set the goal.

    As far as video games, I think the ones who really are ‘playing’ are the ones who are coming up with the games… I think the scientists and mathematicians who are playing are the ones who invent new formulas and equations… someone said that you never come up with a new inventions or idea if you know what the outcome will be, or if you are trying to prove a theory. The thinkers who are way out there are the ones who can imagine something new. And I believe that is true in our own lives. That we can change things by imaging a new way of living our own lives and living with others… but it is all dependant on imagination.

    And I haven’t even gotten into the whole idea of the physical and intellectual play that opens up the mind (and probably body) to academic learning. I totally believe this to be true and have had teachers tell me how students listen differently when I leave (if only for a few minutes) Are there studies to show such a thing?

    I love playing with these ideas.
    Julie DT

  3. Research has given us proof that that we can´t deny the importance of fantasy (games, storytelling,imagination)for the development of a healthy and creative human being. So much so that kids do it naturally when they are by themselves. They give life to inanimated objets (animism), making them talk and move - something very typical of Walt Disney´s movies that witily explore this aspect. But the famous entrepeneur was influenced by children stories that were used to entertain infants and adults alike before being transformed into books. Through fairy tales children can experience feelings that they couldn´t in real life, at least today; they can, by a transference process, be a hero, a witch, a wizard or whatever they wanted to be. This is wonderful, chiefly because we live a world where people are supposed to behave in this or that way, and most of the times we must repress certain types of emotions.Hence I believe that playing games and listen to stories and reading as well, are so important to manking regardless of age.

  4. Just this morning I was reading a 2010 article which speaks to this very issue. 'Using the Trans formative Power of Play to Educate Hearts and Minds: From Vygotsky to Vivian Paley and Beyond' uses Vygotsky's theory of play and Vivian Paley's work with storytelling/storyacting as the basis for a research project which shows how the combination of the theories promotes emerging literacy skills and socio-emotional growth. And imagination is the foundation of it all. As for Disney, keep your eyes open for a future post.

    March 10, 2011 1:46 PM