These videos capture moments that illustrate productive story and play-related interactions between children and adults. Young children learn many essential early literacy lessons with appropriate opportunities to explore print in the company of the people around them. The busy, often noisy pace of home and preschool life often makes it difficult for us to appreciate what and how learning is taking place. Like the layers of a butterfly’s wings, becoming literate is more complex than the surface features would suggest. Here’s a chance to slow down and watch some examples of Storyplay in action. The note accompanying each video highlights significant features of different literacy learning aspects.

These are grouped under various relevant literacy-learning-related categories, including sharing attention, concepts of print, pretend play, emergent writing, emergent reading, making connections and emotional satisfaction.

Sharing Attention

What is in this book?

A gentle, delightful book-sharing moment at home, as an adult and child explore a picture book together. They affirm and motivate one another as they take turns to direct each other’s attention to notice what interests them on the pages. This helps the little boy concentrate for longer. As they point to items and name them, the adult smiles as he hears the little boy identify the hen in isiXhosa – nkuku.

Following the writer

In this clip, the adult had asked the little boy if he could see a ladybird on each page of a book they were reading. He was excited by this game and eagerly found it. The adult noticed how pleased the child was and how, in that moment, this word had high significance. So she asked if the children wanted to write Ladybird with her… We see the eager child following her hand as she writes. He wasn’t the only one learning – these little children were all interested. They focused their attention together with the adult, experiencing how something exciting (the ladybird) can be put into a different form (print) and mean the same thing.

Magic carpet: A little life story

This young boy came to his teacher to tell her a story. He wears the special red storytelling hat everyone shares for storytelling. This hat is much loved and adds a sense of importance to the event. The boy is affirmed by the adult’s attention as she listens carefully to him and writes down his words. With his little story, he brings a sense of home life into the creche and, with it, an expression of who he is – his identity. A little girl comes to share the moment, listening and watching, waiting her turn.

Magic carpet: Reading a writer's story

The adult reads the young boy’s story back to him. Despite the noisy room, they are connecting and concentrating as she reads. They both show they value the boy’s words, which bring the presence of his family and a sense of home life into the creche. The English translation reads, “I am eating cornflakes at home, my dad is feeding me, my mom is gone to Mitchells Plain, my dad is at work, Siphe is at school.” The red hat is an important symbol of agency – the children pass it on to the next child once their story has been told and written down.

Making Connections

Using money

The adults have provided various items for the children to use as they play with the story of the Giant Beetroot. The children are playing “shop-shop”. One child says he is coming to buy eggs, another says she has come to buy yoghurt. The children have a compelling reason to write – they made their own money to be able to buy groceries at this pretend Shoprite. This is an opportunity for emergent writing, for exploring numbers and how much things might cost. They are also connecting to their own experiences, negotiating, establishing and following the rules they understand for shopping, guided by the shopkeeper.

Ntoni le? What's this?

Following a reading of Umhlobo ka-Asanda (A friend for Asanda), the children are looking at pictures on the story wall. The little boy keeps asking, ‘Ntoni le?’ (What’s this?), pointing to the animals, and the girl answers with the name. This story has helped them connect to the animals in a personal way because they’ve been imagining which animals they would like as friends, as they accompanied Asanda. Children look at the animals with ‘new eyes’ as they establish and reinforce vocabulary.

Intent on writing

This two-year-old was playing with crayons by packing them in and out of the bucket. She had been observing an older girl concentrating hard on writing at the same time as she was busy with the crayons. When the older girl finished writing, she left the book and pen behind. This tiny girl then battled her way to the book and the pen. She seemed intent on copying the writing of the older girl.

Emotional Satisfaction

Incy Wincy

The children and practitioner have been reading, chanting and playing Incy Wincy Spider. A sense of quiet satisfaction pervades as the little boy draws. He is comfortable, hugging a toy lion as he draws, and a friend puts a crown on his head. A sense of emotional comfort and satisfaction associated with any activity is an indication that the child is likely to want to repeat this kind of experience. Learning to hold a crayon or pencil and related fine-motor skills happen in a relaxed way when a child is exploring and expressing something personally relevant.

Concepts of Print

Examining the detail

Two young boys concentrate for a short, but intense, period as they examine the back cover of their books. They take turns comparing and noticing what’s the same on each cover. They also point to the print and try to read, saying some words out loud, as if they are sounding out. They don’t know what the words ‘say’ yet, but they know they say something – an important early concept of print.

Learning about pages

As he explores the illustrations on the pages, the young boy’s finger actions suggest that he’s had more experience with screens than with paper. He tries to animate the illustrations on paper using what he knows works with screen images. He’ll adjust his actions when he has had more opportunities to work out how to handle books and how they work.

Re-telling a story

The children have been listening to Abahlobo abathathu netekisi (Three Friends and a Taxi). Reading a book on her own, this girl knows that the story she has heard is in this particular book. She uses the pictures as prompts to re-tell the story in her own way. She is remembering, reconstructing and perhaps trying out vocabulary that she heard in the story, to enrich her use of language. When she realises that the book is upside down, she knows to turn it round, displaying her knowledge of book orientation.

Pretend Play

The power of pretend

Young children are careful observers and they use pretend play to explore, make sense of and rehearse real life as they know it. In doing so, they create stories. Here, absorbed in being a mother with a baby, one girl leads the action. With baby on her back, she uses available props to help her to step into a grownup world. The book becomes the cellphone – and they record the moment. This kind of symbolic play, where children pretend something ‘stands for’ something else, underlies literacy learning, where print ‘stands for’ what the writer means to communicate.

A taxi ride

The children absorb themselves in the seriousness of pretending to travel by taxi. Valuing the use of print is integral to the experience: they have made money for tickets and to buy their provisions from the shop. Encouraged by the ECD practitioner, one child checks that she has all she needs in her bag, a little girl in sunglasses has her ticket, and another child brings her Simba chips. They are exploring personally relevant uses of print while their talk and actions take them on a journey together.

Caring for babies and animals

The children have listened to Umhlobo ka-Asanda (A friend for Asanda) with its theme of friendship, and they and their teacher have been discussing what friends do – care and share. They are now playing with the various animals in the story, which have been offered to them. The story has enriched their imaginations and the children are immersed in pretending to take care of animals and babies, making sure that they are comfortable and fed.

We are working

Working with the story of the Giant Beetroot, the adults and children have talked about what they could make with beetroot. Some children are making pink beetroot doughnuts from playdough and the adults engage with them, showing they are involved and interested. At the writing area, two girls are cutting out pictures that they say they will use. Their engagement suggests the seriousness of play for young children and how skills are practised as part of their unfolding imaginative endeavour.

Emergent Writing

Serious money

The children have listened to and discussed Abahlobo abathathu netekisi (Three Friends and a Taxi) and adults have shown them examples of money and they have gone outside to look at cars and number plates. They have made number plates. The children dictated what should be written on each one with adults modelling the writing. Now, the young boy is making money. Engrossed in the play, he is supplying his friends with cash, thereby exploring a most powerful function of print, while he also practises the skills of forming letters, numerals, and how to cut.

I'm writing!

As she helped her niece with homework, the mom gave her three-year-old son a piece of paper and he joined in, writing down the names of some important people for him. This young boy has understood an important concept of print: different marks you make can represent different people. He has yet to learn how these marks work together as letters, sounds and words. The excitement in his and his mom’s voices is noteworthy… he can tell that he is pleasing her – and she is impressed with what he has worked out and is doing.

Just checking the digital device

The two girls had asked the adults to write down cellphone numbers for them. They use these mini-mentor texts to inform their own emergent writing and play with numbers on pretend cellphones. Young children are close observers of adults’ practices and one of the most valued activities around them is cellphone use. They now explore this as part of their literate identities. The girl’s emergent writing is similar to the babble of babies; she is trying out writing and gaining muscular control over the pen, like babies work to control muscles involved in speech.


This young girl was concentrating on writing down a cellphone number that she had made up. If one watches carefully, one can see that she has no spaces between her symbols and she writes from right to left, and then from left to right across the page, moving above the previous line. Interestingly, this is similar to how writing evolved historically (Feeling at home with literacy, chapter 4). To  progress well, she needs many more opportunities like this, together with many chances to examine conventional writing and numbers in print, and watch conventional writing in action.

Emergent Reading

The comfort of a storybook

The little girl is reading That’s Better and rocks rhythmically as she tells the story. On different pages, little Sipho feels sad, worried, shy, lonely and scared. The refrain, ‘That’s better’, reassures her every time and the gentle illustrations give comfort. She is emotionally, physically and cognitively involved in the story. This is not a new experience – she knows to expect the same story, how to turn pages from left to right and she points to both illustrations and words, showing that she’s aware they both have meaning.


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