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School-age care: Support literacy with fun activities

You want us to focus on building literacy skills this summer?” Melissa says to her program director.
“That’s right.”
“How do we do that with our school-agers? Don’t they get plenty of reading and writing during the regular school year?”
“Yes, but literacy is so important we need to make sure it’s built into our summer program too,” says the director.
“Good grief,” Melissa groans. “I want them to have fun.”
“They can have fun and strengthen their literacy skills at the same time,” the director replies. “Think language games and hands-on activities.”

• • •

Ideally school-age children engage in literacy-building activities year-round. Summer literacy activities help keep children from forgetting what they were learning through the end of May. Summer activities help expand and enrich children’s literacy skills and allow youngsters to return to school in the fall better prepared.
In planning literacy activities for the summer, school-age caregivers can focus on two key categories: 1) games that foster language and 2) activities that enhance fine-motor development. Both kinds of activities will be more effective if they take place in a language-rich environment.

Provide a language-rich environment
Even if the school-age program is housed in a gym or cafeteria, the environment can offer enriching language experiences. Books are an obvious component, but equally important are conversations, poetry and fingerplays, and music and movement. Here are some ideas:

Conversations: Listening and talking
Create the language envelope all day long: Speak warmly and make eye contact.
Play rhyming games, word games, and lotto and board games with children.
Talk about visual displays like magazine pictures and photos of children.
Label objects and areas, changing labels frequently. Pair words and pictures, and use correct spelling.
Read aloud environmental print like labels, street signs, and advertisements.
Describe and explain your actions all day: “Now I’m going to mix up some paint.”
Use puppets and stuffed animals to “talk” to children.
Use tape recorders so children can hear themselves talk.
Use books on tape that children can follow in print.
Ask children open-ended questions during meals and play: “Tell me about….”
Be an active and reflective listener for children.
Be specific when you compliment children: “Great! You put your shirt on by yourself.”
Encourage children to talk to other people: “Tell Dad about…. Ask Jamal if…..”
Encourage children’s words—but not actions—to show strong feelings and to solve problems.
Take dictation to record a child’s ideas or stories. Read these to the child.
Encourage children’s drawing and other art. Display and talk about children’s art.
Have conversations with other adults present, providing language models.
When speaking, use correct grammar and intonation.

Poetry and fingerplays
Chant fingerplays with children: “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple….”
Recite nursery rhymes and short children’s poems, such as “One Misty, Moisty Morning” and “Mix a Pancake.”
Read aloud from poetry books by such authors as Margaret Wise Brown and Shel Silverstein.
Have children create their own poems and silly sayings.
Display children’s poetry in school. Encourage parents to display it at home.
Print copies of children’s poems in booklet form, and mail copies to friends and family.

Music and movement
Make up songs about daily events: “Take a little nap, close your tired eyes….”
Have children dance, acting out the words to songs.
Sing traditional songs, including:
- folk songs: “This train is bound for glory, this train…”;
- camp songs: “There were 10 in a bed and the little one said, ‘Roll over…’”;
- seasonal and holiday songs: “The Watermelon Patch”;
- action songs: “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands…”;
- fingerplay songs: “Here are Grandma’s spectacles….”

Experiences with books
Rotate children’s books in the library center. For greater variety, check out books from the public library.
Read a wide variety of stories and books aloud, including:
- fairy tales and fantasy,
- humor and comics,
- histories, biographies and stories based on real life,
- science and nature books,
- sports books,
- counting and alphabet books.
Read a book aloud to inspire a dance, art, gardening, or cooking project.
Point to authors’ and illustrators’ names on the cover or title page.
Make homemade books with children.
Take down children’s dictation as they explain their artwork or tell a story.
Read back to them what you’ve written.
Have children illustrate their own stories or poems.

Choose games that foster language
Language games support skills that are critical for reading and writing. Start by making language fun for all the children with rhyming, chanting, call and response, name games, and silly sounds.
One example of rhyming is “The Name Game,” which I remember as a novelty hit song sung by Shirley Ellis in 1965. In this game, children substitute beginning sounds to make rhyming words, a skill necessary for phonics learning. See below.
Generations of teachers, camp counselors, and parents organizing birthday parties have played circle games with groups of children. In addition to being a management tool, circle games can enhance development of many skills needed for literacy.
Can you sing and dance “The Hokey Pokey”? Who knew that such a silly circle game could promote strength in a child’s trunk and arms? Circle games can also foster children’s balance, bilateral coordination, auditory skills, and concept development (such as the use of prepositions). These skills support literacy.
Circle games typically occur during circle time (also called group time or meeting). This time offers daily opportunities for adults to enhance children’s normal development, while all the participants have fun.
Why circle games? When used often and appropriately, circle games can help children develop skills in sensory perception, cognition, gross motor, fine motor, language, and social and emotional areas. See below.
Take time to observe in classrooms to learn new songs, fingerplays and games. Find a good book at a library or bookstore to add even more circle games to your repertoire.
Many different ethnic groups have traditional games that can enrich children’s understanding of their own heritage and that of other people’s. Stretch yourself! Learn something new from a less familiar culture, and then teach it to the children.
But before you try a new activity with a group, think about what this specific game or song will involve. Is it too easy or too hard for the children in your care? What developmentally healthy concepts can be taught using these movements? Which skills will children practice in this activity? With a little planning, you can make circle games educational as well as fun.
Collect props like scarves, rhythm sticks, hats, shakers, and bells. Make cards with illustrated titles of songs and games, so the children can take turns picking a card to choose the group’s next activity.
Remember that children sometimes like to be in charge. They tend to choose their favorite songs again and again, so rotate your cards to match the seasons, keeping children’s interest high.
To get started, see the popular circle games at left.
What kinds of circle games should you try? You’re limited only by your imagination. Circle games can involve singing, dancing, movement, imitation, improvisation, call and response, and more. The games can be simple or complex. Slowly work up to more complicated circle games, so the children in your care can experience success as they skip along the developmental path.
Gathering a group of children for a circle game is made easier with a routine. Use a signal like the tinkle of a hand bell every time you gather the group. Soon children will begin to join the group out of habit because they’ve enjoyed circle games so many times in the past.
Gathering and greeting songs are part of human history. One popular greeting song can be traced to the late 19th century when Patty Smith Hill, an innovator in the movement for progressive education in the United States, wrote the words to “Good Morning to You,” using a melody composed by her sister. (Later someone used the same melody and substituted different words, and that song has become the now famous “Happy Birthday to You.”)
You can use my songs of invitation at right, or write your own.
How can you make the most of circle games? First, jot down the games you know well. You probably played “Simon Says” and sang “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” as a child.
The game “A, My Name Is Alice” provides practice with beginning consonant and vowel sounds. Start with “A” and continue through the alphabet, adding the second and third lines and using words that start with the same letter. For example, “B, my name is Bobby, and I come from Boston, and I’m bringing baked beans.”
In the party game “Telephone,” children whisper to each other trying to repeat the phrase traveling around the circle. With their hilarious and often intentional mistakes, they’re practicing auditory discrimination, a skill needed for encoding when children begin to write.
When we play alphabet games like “The Name Game” or “Telephone,” we increase children’s specific knowledge of the encoding and decoding processes. This knowledge is used for reading and writing meaningful sounds in our language. Other activities, including tic-tac-toe and beginners’ card games like lotto, help improve concentration and memory.
One commercially available game, Scrabble® for Juniors, provides practice matching sight words to pictures and matching alphabet letters to make up simple words. By the time my daughter Julia was 5, this game was already her favorite pastime. After a few years, she moved to the adult version, and at 15, she was still asking for it.
Computer software like “Reader Rabbit®” and “Kid Pix®” can be ordered online at The Learning Company, www.learningcompany.com. Computer games can help children practice reading and writing skills, such as eye-hand coordination, letter recognition, letter-sound correspondence, sight word recognition, and beginning phonics.
Be careful when ordering computer games. A lot of software uses only flashy cartoons to hold children’s attention. Look for games that avoid violent images and encourage individual creativity.
What children really need are adults who respond to children’s natural interest in literacy. Luckily, many adults still love literacy games and wordplay, including crossword puzzles and acrostics.

Choose activities that enhance fine motor development
To encourage later writing, wise caregivers engage children in activities that help develop the small muscles in their fingers. Using the fingers and eyes in increasingly complicated ways promotes eye-hand coordination. With only simple materials and equipment, caregivers can provide enough fine motor activities to limber up little fingers.
Water play. Water play can take place in a sink or dishpan, or in a commercial water table. Remember to drain and sanitize water play materials daily. Insist on thorough hand washing before water play. Water play involves action like pouring or splashing. Children can even “paint” with water, using clean brushes of different sizes to make disappearing strokes on sidewalks, fences, or buildings.
Tools for water play include cups, funnels, and turkey basters. Many plastic toys, such as boats, turtles, and fish, can be added to the water play bin. On occasion, children will enjoy bathing plastic dolls and washing doll clothes, socks, and plastic dishes.
In addition to supporting fine motor skills, water play can teach basic science concepts like and . Experimenting to find out what sinks or floats is a school-age experience involving basic concepts of physics. Such language learning can happen only if adults talk to children about what’s going on in the water.
Dough and clay. School-age children can squeeze and stretch dough or clay, which provides exercise to strengthen their fingers and hands for writing.
You can buy Play-Doh®, Silly Putty®, Sculpty®, and other modeling clays in craft or toy stores. Or invite a small group of children to mix up a batch of dough from a recipe.
Making snakes, ropes, pancakes, pie crusts, or snowballs of dough uses both hands in bilateral integration. Mashing and pounding clay provides weight-bearing activities to strengthen the arms. Standing at a low table or kneeling at a coffee table can promote balance and weight bearing of the legs. Because parents are sometimes too busy to make play dough with their children, child care provides an opportunity for school-age caregivers to provide this important experience.
Scour your house—and seek donations—for intriguing sculpting tools. Include a plastic knife, fork, spoon, garlic press, rolling pin, cookie cutters, scissors, and wooden spools.
Paper crafts. Paper is used for a number of fine motor activities, including tearing, scrunching, cutting, pasting, drawing, painting, and sculpting. Be sure to have an ample supply of various types of paper on hand.
You can buy non-toxic paste in grocery or craft stores, or have children mix it up from flour and water. For your next paper project, try one of the paste recipes at right. Start with a paper chain if you haven’t made one lately.
Just as anyone can make a paper chain, anyone can learn to support children’s language development. In school-age care, guiding young writers is as easy and enjoyable as making paper chains.
Literacy supports human connections across space and time like the links of a chain support a bridge. When we practice literacy by reading a book, we’re sometimes hearing voices from the past—even from the distant past. And we can send our own messages to the future by writing down poems, plays, songs, stories, and essays.
The fragility of paper chains, however, reminds us that in spite of the critical importance of literacy in our world, not all our children become strong readers and writers. Unfortunately, the chain can be broken. Don’t let that happen for the children in your care.
Here are other ideas for paper crafts:
paper flowers. Show children how to roll paper into a cone and snip fringe around the edge. Use a dull knife blade on each strip of fringe to curl it into a “petal.”
paper dolls and snowflakes. These fascinating creations sometimes surprise us when we unfold them, just as written compositions often surprise us with new meaning when read aloud.
Japanese origami, the art of paper folding. This craft involves coordinating hands and fingers and following sequential directions, skills needed for all the arts, including writing. Five-year-olds can do simple origami projects, but older children may need a more challenging experience. Buy origami kits at craft stores, or find books on origami in the library. Add these materials and instructions to the art center.
three-dimensional pictures. Encourage children to wad tissue paper into balls and paste them on posterboard. For added texture, paste on buttons and scraps of lace and ribbon. Or paste shells, twigs, and leaves on cardboard. When children pick up small items like these, they are exercising the pincer grip, which they use to hold pens for writing.
textured names. Print children’s names on a piece of cardboard, and have them paste buttons or acorn caps over each letter. Or have them spread paste on the letters and sprinkle with sand, glitter, or sequins.
collages. Invite children to cut pictures from magazines and paste them on colored paper. Pictures can be cut from magazines more easily if they are first outlined with a thick marker in a circle, oval, or triangle shape. Children can use collages for a wall decoration or give them as gifts to friends and relatives.
Making arrangements of pictures could be good practice for making arrangements of words. Isn’t this what writers do?
Painting. School-age children can use fingerpaint to practice writing alphabet letters, numbers, names, and simple words. But in addition to using their fingers, children can experiment with using their knuckles, wrists, palms, and fingernails. They may even use elbows and the backs of their hands. They can repeat swirly, vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines to compose patterns.
Fingerpainting on a cookie sheet or plastic tray makes cleanup relatively easy.
Try using shaving cream for painting, but only if children won’t touch their eyes. Shaving cream stings!
Vary painting instruments to include large and small brushes, sponges, straws, sticks, and other tools. Encourage children to with sponges, blocks, and potato mashers.
Painting at an easel is a different experience from painting on a flat surface like a table. Two children can paint opposite each other on an upright sheet of clear plastic like Plexiglas®, resulting in an experience with interactive . Tracking and attention to detail are two skills that will be used in later reading and writing.
Sewing. Many years ago, sewing was an important part of most children’s education because most clothing and linens were made in the home. Weaving, tapestry, and quilting were both decorative and useful arts. But today experiences with fabric, needle, and thread may need to be organized by caregivers.
Make a “needle and thread” for younger children but cutting a length of yarn and stiffening one end with tape. Children can string wooden beads, trying different shapes and colors to make patterns and gaining experience with simple composition. When children plan their patterns as drawings, using crayons or markers on paper, they are actually recording their thoughts. A precursor to writing!
Provide sewing cards with lengths of yarn and ribbon. You can buy cardboard or wooden sewing cards in a learning supply store, but you can also make them from clean produce packing trays. Allow children to draw a pattern on the tray with a permanent marker (not water-based), and then have an adult poke holes in the tray with a knitting needle. Children can string yarn and ribbon in and out of the holes across the surface to stitch embroidery.

About the author
Theresa M. Sull, Ph.D., an author, trainer, and early childhood educator, has taught children, college students, and teachers and coordinated children’s programs. She is a frequent contributor to .