Playful Book Explorations in Preschool

Inviting young children to engage in playful retelling of stories develops powerful early literacy skills.

May 21, 2024
FatCamera / iStock

Playful book-based invitations are the magic ingredient to improve shared reading experiences and ultimately lay the foundation for future reading success. Repeated readings across several days followed up with playful retelling allows teachers and students to dig deeper into the story. During the read-alouds, target vocabulary words are explicitly taught so that students are ready to use the words in their play.

Play is an effective early literacy tool that increases comprehension and encourages students to apply vocabulary within a meaningful context. When students use playful materials to retell familiar stories, they develop a deeper understanding of important story details and apply higher-order-thinking skills. Retelling the story allows students the opportunity to authentically practice the vocabulary they are learning.

Here is what shared reading with book-based play looks like in our 4K (4-year-old kindergarten) classroom.


Choosing the right book is important. We use The Mitten, by Jan Brett, as a shared text in our classroom because it meets the following criteria: 

  • Fiction picture book (fables, fairy tales, and folktales work well)
  • Clear story sequence (boy loses his mitten, animals crawl inside, animals burst from the mitten, boy finds his mitten and returns home)
  • Repeated text (the animals do not want the newcomers but let them in anyway because of the threat they pose)
  • Multiple characters (Nicki, Baba, mole, rabbit, hedgehog, owl, badger, fox, bear, mouse)
  • Objects that are central to the story (white mitten, knitting materials)
  • Tier 2 vocabulary words (burrow, knit, wool, prickles, talons, investigate, drowsy)

Plan to read, reread, retell, and play for a minimum of five days for familiar stories and 10 days for more complex stories (like The Mitten). Write discussion questions that align with your goals on Post-it Notes and stick them in the book as visual reminders. 

When deciding on target vocabulary words, look for those that are useful across multiple contexts. Focus words move students beyond their everyday social language. Vocabulary words that students can organically apply during story retell hold the most power. This planning guide can help get your class ready.

Plan the Play Invitations

Intentionally selecting materials that promote retell will naturally invite students to reenact the story and use the target vocabulary words. In this way, you guide the play even when you cannot be everywhere at once. The following materials are perfect for retelling:

  • Hand, finger, and stick puppets
  • Stuffed animals
  • Figurines or plastic characters
  • Stage (this could simply be a two manila folders taped together)
  • Costume pieces (e.g., headbands with animals from The Mitten)
  • Felt board and felt story pieces
  • Story mat and character/object cards
  • Character, setting, and object printables taped to wood blocks or magnetic tiles
  • Props (e.g., a white bed sheet to represent the mitten in the story)
  • Story-sequencing cards in a pocket chart
  • Bookmaking materials (students can retell through illustrations, dictation, or writing)
  • Projected video of the read-aloud (for students who need to hear the story again)
The Mitten play activity
Courtesy of Amber Unger

During our read and play experience with The Mitten, there were seven play invitations available to our students. However, when you first try out this approach, don’t overwhelm yourself: Simply gather enough materials for the number of kids in your class. One play invitation might host many children. For example, the book The Mitten has 10 characters. With a white bed sheet (for the mitten) and animal puppets, half of our class was able to engage in a retelling.

When you gather materials for your play invitations, consider resources that are already available to you. For example, loose parts can be symbolic props for any story. The materials we used with The Mitten were provided by a grant through our school district’s education association.


Keep your shared reading experiences focused in order to maintain student attention. Zoom in on a daily focus, but be sure to quickly review the target vocabulary words each day after they are introduced.

During the shared reading experience, pause when you arrive at each target word.  This is when you explicitly teach the vocabulary by prompting your students to repeat the word, providing a kid-friendly definition, displaying photos that represent the words, and asking students to share any relevant background knowledge.


Whole group: Scaffold the story-retelling process by practicing in the whole group setting first. Utilize the fishbowl approach by prompting your class to sit around the carpet while some students retell the story using materials from a play invitation. Your role is to guide the retell from the sidelines.

Grand tour: When you feel confident that your students comprehend the story enough to retell in peer groups, then it is time to introduce the book-based play invitations. Take your students on a grand tour by walking them around the classroom while you introduce the materials in each play invitation. If your class is large or if they struggle with transitions, you could snap photos of the invitations ahead of time, then display the photos in your whole group area as you introduce the materials.

The Mitten play activity
Courtesy of Amber Unger

Student choice: After the shared reading experience, send your students off to choose play invitations and engage with materials that directly connect to your focus book. If you are fortunate enough to have other staff members in the classroom, ask them to circulate throughout the classroom, support students with story retell as needed, and prompt children to infuse the target vocabulary in their play. Plan for a minimum of 15 minutes for these play sessions.

Guided play groups: Strategically plan small groups for guided play in advance. Balance assigned student groups based on their current language abilities and confidence levels. Plan to work with one guided play group per session. For example, you might meet with groups of four or five students across several days.

Below are some direct student quotes. Notice how the children retold the story while using the target vocabulary words (bolded) that were introduced during the read-aloud.

  • “A fox stopped to investigate the mitten… and he felt drowsy, so then he poked his muzzle in.”
  • “The mole, tired from tunneling in, he discovered the mitten and burrowed inside the mitten.”
  • “The mole didn’t want to share. He [points to the rabbit] was sad. He [points to the mole] saw his big kickers and he let him in.”

Connect With Families

Kids love bringing these stories home as well. For example, we sent home a story summary, character printables, and a vocabulary word list for The Mitten. I posted an invitation for families to encourage their children to retell the story at home and included a read-aloud video link in the post. One parent wrote, Wow! Our son just retold this story for us today! Amazing! Great work at school!  

Shared reading paired with book-based play supports students with exploring the most essential purpose of literacy: the construction of meaning. So what book will you start with?

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  • Pre-K

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