This post is about Dramatic Play—one of the ways children can share with adults how they feel about what’s going on in their world. Our writer is Cassie Henderson, who, in addition to being a wonderful teacher of young three-year olds, is a writer and talented actress.
Not a day goes by in our classroom without one of the children initiating a dramatic play activity. Whether it be a tea party, a superhero squad, or an office of little workers doing “paperwork,” make-believe is always a big part of our day. It warms my heart to see the children imitating what they see adults do or creating imaginary worlds for themselves.
Dramatic play such as this has several benefits for children. It fosters creativity and imagination, and gives children the perfect outlet for expression. It also provides a platform for discussion of real versus pretend. Before age 4, children often have a difficult time distinguishing the two. When we use dramatic play activities as a game—and afterwards ask questions—we can get a better grasp on how this understanding is developing.
Beyond creativity, dramatic play also builds critical thinking and problem solving. Through experimentation in play, children will interact with others and be forced to adjust accordingly. If two children are pretending to be superheroes, and one suddenly decides to become the villain, the other child must change the course of his play. This is problem solving at the basic level, building a foundation of critical thinking.
Children will also improve language skills if they engage in dramatic play frequently. They listen and observe the world around them, and implement everything they learn into their play. They will often repeat phrases they hear throughout the day, which helps them process how language works and build an understanding of communication, even at a very young age.
Furthermore, dramatic play is a therapeutic outlet. After experiencing stressful or traumatic events, a child will often reenact those events through dramatic play. This allows the child to understand what happened and start to process how to accept or deal with the event. We often don’t realize the stress that children can go through, and dramatic play is a way for them to explain that to us.
Teachers and parents can encourage children to use dramatic play daily. Dramatic play can be structured or unstructured. In unstructured dramatic play, the child is in complete control with no intervention or setup. Adults can participate, but should not try to steer the play in a particular direction. The child will often choose to play a character that they know well and will ask the adult to do the same. They will switch between thoughts and directions fairly quickly.
It is important in unstructured dramatic play to not correct the child. For example, if they choose to take a toy banana and use it as a phone, or pretend that the kitchen toy counter is a computer, the adult should not tell them they are playing the “wrong way.” The child should have absolute control and creativity.
In structured dramatic play, the adult might spend some preparation time setting up the activity, choosing a theme and providing related props. They might implement literacy aspects through signs, doctor’s charts, etc. They should provide a variety of props and spend a few minutes explaining the activity to the child in advance.
Even though there is some preparation in structured dramatic play, the child should still, ultimately be in charge. The parent or teacher might assign the child an area to start with, but it is still important to allow them to move and experiment. The adult can attempt to verbally steer the child in a particular direction of play, but should not pressure the child if she chooses to do something else.
Dramatic play is an important outlet for a child, whether it is structured or unstructured. I would highly encourage all parents and teachers to allow their children the joy of expression through free dramatic play.