It Looked Like Spilt Milk activitiy

Boys and Reading: When Acting Out is a Good Thing


When my parents gave Ashman a Lego City car transporter set as an early fifth birthday present, he was not allowed to open it until we got home from Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  We’ve had a strict “no Legos out of the house” policy ever since Budlong’s Batman minifig was snatched right out of his school cubby in kindergarten.  I know, talk about a hard life lesson.  So Ashman contented himself with sitting on the couch with his grandpa, looking at the pictures on the box, and “talking about Legos.”

“When I build this car transporter, I can act out a book I have,” I heard him say to Grandpa.

“Oh really?  Which book?” I interjected, stunned that “acting out a book” was a thing he was aware he did and was in fact making plans to do.  The boys do it all the time with TV shows.  At our house, watching a couple episodes of Wild Kratts or Jake and the Neverland Pirates can spontaneously morph into hours of animal role play or treasure hunting, but it’s a rare and beautiful occasion when books inspire children’s play.  And here’s why and how I try to encourage it whenever I can.

Acting out a book supports a child’s literacy development and is especially good for boys.

To be honest, when I think of my boys as readers, I see them curled up in bed, under the blankets with a flashlight, staying up until all hours of the night with a deliciously good book, the way I did, and still do–except for that flashlight part.  Michael Sullivan, author of Raising Boy Readers, explains that one reason boys don’t read for pleasure is that reading is seen as a “solitary and sedentary” activity and boys “are much more likely to read for a short while then get up and do something, maybe even do something inspired by their reading” (32).  Acting out a story with parents, caretakers, siblings, or peers can help boys see that reading doesn’t have to be passive and isolating.

Education Week reports that according to a study by researchers at Arizona State University in Tempe and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, physically acting out a text helps children understand and infer more.  It allows their brains to make connections between words and physical actions or tangible objects.  In her book The Male Brain, Louann Brizendine, M.D. argues that the brain is specifically designed to make these connections, and boys’ brains especially benefit when they can stimulate the muscles or senses related to a new word they encounter.  As they become more advanced readers, boys will not always need to get up and run when they read the word “dash,” but the muscles or body parts they used to learn the word will remain connected to its meaning and they can act out the scenario in their heads (26).   Pairing movement with new words is an incredibly powerful vocabulary acquisition strategy.  I see it when the boys’ martial arts instructor shouts “Junbi stance” and they immediately assume the position.  I live it when my yoga instructor calls out “Supta Baddha Konasana” and without thinking, my body automatically reclines, the soles of my feet meet, and my legs make a butterfly.

Besides helping them learn new words and phrases, dramatic play inspired by a story can help children develop their sequencing and retelling skills, skills essential in reading comprehension.  Even when you read something that might not be your child’s first choice, acting it out can make it a book that resonates with him/her.  So what does this look like and how can you get started?

Start small and let your child direct the course of play.  

This is not like that one time in ninth grade when your English teacher assigned you a scene from Romeo and Juliet and you had to write a modernized script, paint backdrops, wear costumes, and recite lines in front of the class (yes, I was that English teacher).  If you think “acting out a book” means putting on a full-fledged show, you’re going to lose your child’s interest even before you start reading.  Play it cool.  Think of it more as extending the book, or even just a part of it, through some sort of dramatic play.  You and your child could

  • manipulate toys or images to recreate the action from a favorite scene
  • make sound effects or use hand gestures as you’re reading
  • create a costume for a favorite character
  • build the setting (life size or in miniature)
  • find or make puppets, dolls, animals, or other toys to play the roles of a story’s characters

Ever notice how when a child asks you to play with him, there’s usually one scenario and just a few lines that you repeat over and over ad nauseam?  Like when Ashman is at the firetruck park and asks me to play with him: he goes to sleep in the tube by the slide; I ring the fire bell and shout “Wake up! There’s a fire in a house on Chestnut Street!” (a line from a book we read about firetrucks); he wakes up, slides down the slide, and runs to the firetruck.  And then we do it all. over. again.  There may be just one scene or one line in a book that captures your child’s imagination.  Use that.

Examples of how we have extended books through play at our house:

  • Last winter after reading Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches to Ashman and his friend Benny, we built Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s star-on/star-off machine using a play construction fort set. The boys paid me their money, crawled through the tunnel, and received a yellow foam star to stick on their bellies.  Then they crawled back through and handed over their stars.  Each time they had to crawl through the tunnel faster and faster.  It got really silly, but it never got old.
  • The first summer I was a full-time SAHM, I read the book It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles Shaw with the boys.  Then we lay on the living room floor and watched the clouds going by through our skylights.  We talked about what the clouds looked like.  Then we got up, went to the dining room table, and sponge painted white cloud shapes on blue paper.
It Looked Like Spilt Milk activity

Ashman sponge painting clouds

  • 20 Big Trucks in the Middle of the Street by Mark Lee is one of Ashman’s current favorites. After our first time reading it, I casually asked him, “Twenty trucks, that’s a lot.  Do you even have twenty trucks?”  He accepted the challenge.  Soon the hallway was our street and he was carefully casting (and counting) vehicles to play each role in the traffic jam.  “The garbage truck has to be last, like in the book.  But I don’t have an ice cream truck or a crane truck,” he explained.  Boom.  I already know he’s on his way to being able to retell a story.  He knows the ice cream truck is first and causes the traffic jam; he knows the garbage truck is last; and he knows the crane truck (which comes fifth in the traffic jam) will eventually be the solution to this problem.  He now requests this book by name when we go to the library.  With a subject like trucks, it’s no surprise Ashman was drawn to it, but I’m pretty sure the fact that this book inspired him to play with his trucks in a slightly different way was what made it resonate with him.
  • Check out this awesome resource for using children’s books to promote play!

What books have you “acted out” with your children and what did the extension activity look like?


One thought on “Boys and Reading: When Acting Out is a Good Thing

  1. Tamara Maxwell

    Fantastic read! I’m reminded about how my boys used to act out texts we were reading in class with tableaux and shadow acting!


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