The Power of Guided Play through a Narrative in the Pre-K Classroom

Young children understand stories and love to have books read to them often to the point that they memorize and can recite a favorite story from memory. Narratives establish supportive conditions in the brain for learning and remembering (McTighe and Willis, 2019). As young learners brains develop, their imaginations also run wild, and they love to pretend. Combining these two elements, the role-play with the narrative, is the basis for the Storypath learning method.

Pre-K Storypath

Building upon the K-8 Storypath program for older students, I began working with two early childhood educators to adapt the Storypath program for children ages 3-5. We asked seasoned early childhood educators to pilot the program and based on their feedback and hours of classroom observations, we created a early childhood program.

Most noteworthy for PreK Storypath is that it is founded on the notion that “our brains seek and store memories based on patterns” (McTighe & Willis 2019). Children’s developing brains make sense of events through a story inclusive of a setting, characters, plot, or problems to be solved. Building on this very human experience, the pre-k program binds together our notions of story and children’s imaginary play to create powerful and memorable learning experiences.

A common approach to organizing young children’s learning experiences, such as understanding the post office, is to have them play and engage in activities relating to the theme. Children engage in a number of activities all related to the post office; however, children may not recognize and fail to understand how the various topics relate to one another. The theme as an organizing tool can get diminished.

In contrast, Storypath uses the narrative form to organize a topic with specific learning goals in mind. It seeks to utilize what children already like to do: play pretend.  Teachers will use the highly regarded “guided play,” defined as children playing with gentle adult guidance toward the learning goal,” for the students to gain understanding of the topic (Hassinger-Das, Hirsh-Pasek, & Michnick Golinkoff, 2017).

Guided play in the pre-k setting

The PreK Storypath Program takes a topic, such as the post office, and creates a story that is developmentally appropriate for young children. Tapping into what children know and understand about post offices provides the teacher with a starting point the sequence of episodes. Most young children have some notion of mail carriers and getting mail—even in today’s technological age. Maybe they’ve been to the post office with their parents, or seen the mail trucks out for delivery, but it’s necessary to build on what they already know and understand about the role of mail carriers to set the stage for children to imagine themselves delivering the mail.

Teachers will first set the stage and establish characters and the story of the guided play. “Today, Johnny, Sally, and Susan are the postal workers, and I as the teacher will be coming into the post office to buy stamps. Sally, you will leave on your route to deliver mail as I enter.” The Storypath outlines a few scenarios, but there are endless opportunities to mix-up the guided play.

With the characters for the story established, children will begin to think about what happens when mail is delivered—a possible setting for the story as children engage in imagining streets with homes and mail boxes. Fundamentally, teachers need to ask questions and talk with the students as they imagine themselves in their character roles. Engaging with children as they play post office, the teacher enters into the play as a character—letter recipient, postal worker, or community member looking for assistance. As the teacher plays roles in the post office, doorways are opened to guide children towards understanding how addresses are determined, the importance of being kind to others, or helping classmates solve problems encountered in the delivery of mail. These events build on learning goals that are centered on what children bring to the guided play experience, and put students at the forefront of understanding how the mail carrier and post office extend into their own lives.

Introduce the concept of mail.
Create mail carriers.
Create mailboxes with homes and streets, delivery trucks, and post office play area.
Learn about the work in the post office.

Write letters.

Deliver the mail; collect mail.

A problem emerges from the children’s play—an overstuffed mailbox. Children decide how to solve the problem.

Conclude with a letter writing party with families.

Problem-solving skills emerge in the narrative

Writing letters, learning about addresses, and delivering and collecting mail can lead to a problem. In one of our pilot classrooms, an overstuffed mailbox emerged and sometimes things other than mail would be put in the mailbox. The students then were challenged to solve the problem. We asked, “What should we do?”

Mikey: Maybe we should just put mail in it.

Lexy: It has to be in an envelope.

Cole: Mail has to have a stamp on it.

Ellie: Paper has to go in the recycle box.

Sarah: Only put it in the mailbox if it’s mail to send to someone and it’s in an envelope.

This is when it starts to “click” for the preschoolers. The students then create rules for using the mailbox and sort the items into two piles—items that belonged in the mailbox and those items that belonged elsewhere. Other problems can emerge related to the post office and young children have a sense of agency as they figure out solutions. Ultimately the plot of the story (or problems to be solved) affirms for children that they are capable and their voice matters in seeking a solution.

Concluding with family involvement

Every story needs a satisfying ending, so a letter writing party incorporating the students families concluded PreK Storypath. Students wrote invitations and mailed them to families inviting them to the party. At the party, children dictated letters to family members that could be addressed and mailed affirming their learning about the post office and the importance of mail and letters. In the pilot classrooms with children from diverse backgrounds, this event was exciting for these young learners. The eagerness to dictate or write their letters was clearly evident and they were excited to have their families’ involvement in the final episode.

Teachers intuitively use stories through the ages to capture children’s interest and attention. Stories help us understand how the world works treading a path between imagination and reality to engage our minds and help us create meaning and relevance from our experiences (Bruner 1990; Egan 1988). The Storypath offers teachers a highly effective approach for organizing learning reaping benefits for young learners from a range of diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Storypath can enhance every classroom through simulation learning




Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Egan, K. (1988). Teaching as storytelling. London, UK: Routledge.

Hassinger-Das, J B., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Michnick Golinkoff, R. (2017, May). The case of brain science and guided play: A developing story. Young Children.

McTighe, J. & Willis, J. (2019). Upgrade your teaching: understanding by design meets neuroscience. Alexandra: VA: ASCD.

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