Monday, August 27, 2012

Toy Boat

The beginning of the school year is the perfect time to consider the importance of play in the early childhood classroom and the role that we adults have in creating opportunities for children to make profound discoveries through play.

One incident that I remember, from years ago, always makes this clear......and makes me smile.

I was visiting the Whitney Young Early Childhood Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana and had shared, during my concerts there, a song that I created to celebrate the tongue twister "Toy Boat." At each concert, after singing the song, I led the preschoolers and kindergarteners in a follow-up game.  Children could take turns coming forward to say the words "toy boat," in the microphone, three times.  And, of course, they had to say the words fast.  That's what makes a tongue twister challenging and fun.  It's what makes a tongue twister play.

You know the results. 

"Toy boat, toy boit, toy boit!"

And so on.

In between concerts I joined some of the preschoolers out on the playground and overheard a number of them continuing to attempt to complete the challenge.

"Toy boat, toy boat, toy boit." (laughter)

"Toy boit, toy boit, toy boit." (more laughter)

One little boy ran up to me excitedly and said, "Hey Jim Gill!  I've got a new one!"

I wasn't exactly sure of what he was referring to, so I asked him what his "new one" was.

He looked straight at me and proudly said, "Foy foat, foy foat, foy foat."

I smiled a big GENUINE smile.  Then I gave him a playful challenging look. 

"Oh yeah?  Moy moat, moy moat, moy moat!"

He stopped for a moment.  I could see that he was thinking, just by watching his face.

His reply:  "Doy doat, doy doat, doy doat!"

The young child was, of course, making phoneme substitutions.  Substituting letter sounds like this is a very important early literacy skill.  Beginning reader books, like Dr. Seuss' famous "Cat in the Hat," were created to exercise this ability.

And this young boy just discovered it for himself.  He began by playing a tongue twister and, once playing with words and sounds, began to play with different sound (letter) substitutions.

No worksheet was needed.  No computer was needed.  All the child needed was a caring adult to share a silly word game and some play time for him to expand on that game.

What makes this story so memorable to me, years later, is that when this young boy shared his creation, he not only shared his discovery but his excitement about the discovery.

Play is inspiring.  Not only is it inspiring for children to learn and master a new skill, but the discovery process itself is inspiring. 

No one can say the same about worksheets or “screen time.”    


  1. LOVE this memory and you are SO right!!!! Unfortunately, the people "making the rules" aren't in the schools to see this kind of learning take place. Spread the word - far and wide - these discoveries happen ALL OF THE TIME, EVERYDAY when imagination, creativity and play are valued!!

  2. Thanks for your feedback Jan. And I know exactly what you mean about those that "make the rules." One of the reasons I decided to start writing these pieces was to try and get better at articulating what we, in early childhood, know about play from our everyday intimate observations.......exactly the kind of knowledge that policy makers, who "make the rules" seem to be lacking. Words like "rigorous" that appear in the common core always seem to work against those of us that care about play-based programming.......but it needn't be. That young boy at Whitney Young was engaging in "rigorous" intellectual discovery....and having a joyous time doing it!