Seeing is believing, but one has to know what to look for – and in South Africa, we need demonstrations of high-quality early literacy teaching and learning which revolve around imagination and stories. To reclaim story is to find the key to meaningful teaching and learning that was abandoned in colonial and apartheid education. This applies at all levels and begins in very early childhood.
Here’s a group of three- and four-year-olds playing under a CLINIC sign. They cluster around a shelf with empty containers and empty little plastic bottles; also a few aprons, pens and pencils, note books, an old telephone, little blankets, an empty Vaseline container and small buckets.
‘The children put chairs in a row and they were at the clinic, Nomonde came to the children sitting at the chairs asking then if they are sick. She had her little book and she was writing their names in the book, there was giving of medicine, checking of temperatures, looking inside the mouths… Some children were taking their medicine to feel better, ‘Chommie this one will make you feel better’.
Some children were writing prescriptions in their small books and Zizi was writing a letter to her friend. Nomonde who is 3 years wanted to tell me a story and in her story she goes to buy medicine, she buys the medicine from a shop, then she swallow’s the pills, but her tummy is still sore…’
– Extract from Storyplay mentor Nolubabalo Mbotshwa’s notes. (Names of children changed and child comments translated from isiXhosa).
This is a piece of Storyplay: using the power of story and its active form, play, to motivate and support imaginative thinking, language and literacy learning. It took place after the teacher had read Umvundlana (The Little Hare), a picture book about a little hare who feels sick.
These young children in a cramped, under-resourced preschool, are taking the initiative and ownership of their learning. By drawing their attention to the CLINIC sign she has made, the teacher facilitates a high-quality opportunity for play that includes using print. The children choose to (re)create a clinic scene, prompted by the storyline and subsequent conversation with their teacher about being ill.
They go further: making active connections to their memories and life experiences. They look after one another, taking medicine and trying out what it means to be a doctor or a nurse. In doing so, they harness our human capacity for behaving symbolically. At the same time, they explore what they know about the uses of writing and reading, also symbolic, and their understanding of and skill with the mechanics of writing and reading (practising hand-eye co-ordination and working at muscle control).
They know that they are pretending, but this kind of fantasy play is the real work of young children. The teacher has initiated a stimulating, culturally and linguistically relevant learning atmosphere that is being further developed together with the children. It values and invites writing and reading, using the children’s languages in an active process of talking, thinking, problem solving, dictating, writing and playing.
Moreover, the writing and reading samples that the children produce as they play, provide material for the teacher to assess: By learning to value and recognize the indications of progress in the children’s immature writing and reading attempts, teachers are in a good position to offer appropriate material and support for further learning.