I noticed my 2 1/2 year old walking around the back yard the other day with a small rectangular rock nestled in the palm of his hand. I watched him excitedly moved it around as he energetically bounded around the lawn, obviously in his own world. I wondered where his imagination had taken him. Then I heard the giveaway: “Boop! Boop!” He was holding the rock out, extending his arm toward a ride along car in the yard. “My boop-boop!” He said as he looked up with a huge grin of satisfaction, having clearly just set the alarm on his toy car with his own personal key fob.
I’ll admit that I was pretty excited too. This type of symbolic play — where an object represents something else — may seem like inconsequential play to some, but it is actually a hallmark of pre-literacy.
Whenever a person reads, they’re scanning across a series of symbols. Together, those symbols make words, and those words carry ideas. But what we actually see or hold is very different that what is going on in our minds. When children play pretend, they are making this same cerebral leap. A block can be a phone. A rag can be a baby. A rock can be a key fob.
And marks on a page can be a story.