How playing the ‘School Game’ helps kids on their journey to literacy

A boy in the Ivory Coast practises reading his letters. Children can learn a lot about reading from each other during the “School Game”. EPA/Legnan Koula

When you think of early home based reading, you may picture a mother and child poring over a brightly coloured book. Research has proved that caregivers offer children important support in their schooling through this kind of experience.

But what happens when a parent is too busy or tired to read? Or when there are no cheerfully illustrated children’s books? In many disadvantaged homes parents may be absent, work away from home, have little formal schooling, or not be interested in reading. Most homes in South Africa have fewer than ten books.

So what does happen in disadvantaged homes? I asked a group of teachers who were educated in the rural Northern and Eastern Cape during apartheid how they learned to read. They came from homes without suitable reading materials and went to schools with few books. In spite of this, most of these teachers could read before they even reached school age.

It emerged that many were taught by other children, either by siblings doing homework, or in what they called the “School Game,” known in some contexts as ‘Playing School.’ It seemed worth investigating this game, particularly as these children later became successful students and teachers.

The School Game

In the interviewees’ accounts, the School Game was played with children from the household, farmstead or village. Older children took the lead, imitating their own teacher. They would write words or letters on zinc fences or water barrels with charcoal or white clay, or use brown wrapping paper as ‘books.’

Role play games like this one, in which children imitate adults in a familiar context, have well known benefits for the children playing them. While they play, children practise memory, language, social and oral skills. They learn to negotiate, cooperate, solve problems and practise self regulation. Best of all for disadvantaged children, role play games need only the resources children themselves provide.

For the individuals I questioned, the most important benefit of the School Game was that they arrived at school with a strong sense of themselves as successful readers. This motivated them. They were noticed and praised by teachers, principals and inspectors. At home, reading enabled these children to enter the adult life of the family by reading to or for family members.

One of them wrote:

This pretend play school made me very proud of myself and led me to like reading books. As the time went by I learnt to use other books as well as reading the bible for my grandmother and I was bragging about that to my friends.

Apart from motivation and the general benefits of any role play game, how else can the School Game support early literacy learning? It seems to provide two important learning opportunities through peer teaching and practice.

Preparation for real school

By teaching their peers in this game, children presented reading as a valued activity when adults were not necessarily modelling literacy in the home. Also, because the School Game copied local teachers, it prepared children for the local school and its expectations.

A research participant whose eight year old sister taught her to read at the age of five wrote:

When I started school I already had a background of books, so I grasped everything easily and became a fast learner. That motivated me to always do my best in reading because it made me feel proud of myself.

Secondly, the School Game helped children to recall and practise school learning. One participant commented: “This helped me a lot because in a way it was reinforcing what I was learning at school even though I was not aware (of it).” Repetition and practice benefit the memory, a powerful tool in the service of literacy learning.

Lessons in learning

It has become commonplace to blame a range of home and environmental deficits for the low levels of literacy achievement among underprivileged children. The difficulties of becoming a reader in a disadvantaged environment should not be under estimated. But the rewards of becoming a reader, as in all communities, are enormous. One participant said:

I never passed a written piece of paper on the street without picking it up and reading it. One day after school I picked up a piece of paper only to realise it was soiled. The other children made it a joke (laughing) saying that it served me right because I liked to pick up paper like a mad person and one day I would pick up a snake wanting to read it. Even after that nasty experience I continued reading every piece of reading material I came across.

This study suggests that teachers and teacher educators should not ignore the benefits of play structures like the School Game to promote extramural learning and positive experiences among learners. It reminds teachers and teacher educators that disadvantaged communities may still provide rich, affirming literacy learning experiences for children.