Dramatic play—Every day
José: Who are you today?
Tonya: Today I’m the big sister. I have a boyfriend and if you play daddy
you get to fuss when I don’t come home for dinner.
José: Why don’t you come home?
Tonya: Because I go to the football games.
José: Well, I don’t want to play daddy. Today I can be a footballer.
You can watch.
Tonya: No, I can cheer and jump. Cheer people wear short skirts and shake paper
José: OK. Can Jenny play too? She can throw and catch.
José and Tonya are engaged in dramatic play. They are
curious about the world of adults and are trying on roles and
exploring activities. Their play offers Tonya and José opportunities
to create adventures, practice real-life skills, act out fantasies
and fears, and interact with people and materials in their environment.
Dramatic play is one of a child’s primary tools for learning and making
sense of complex activities and interactions. It’s a reflection of a
child’s emerging ability to deal with symbols as well as a mirror of
social and emotional development.
Through play children learn. Learning—like play—happens when children
have experiences, process those experiences, and then make the experience meaningful
in their lives. For example, 4-year-old Tonya has heard the word ,
has seen the Dallas Cowboys play on television, and has kicked her brother’s
football. In her play she’s trying to make sense of her sister’s
interest in football; she wants to understand the things her near-adult sister
finds important. She tests ideas with José and symbolizes and recreates
her family experiences. Tonya is engaging all areas of development—cognitive,
language, social, emotional, and physical—in her play.
Developing learning skills through dramatic play
Imaginative play allows children to build social relationships,
practice and improve verbal communication, solve problems,
negotiate, and cooperate. It’s a major contributor to
intellectual development as a pure form of symbolic thought
(Mayesky, Neuman, and Wlodkowski 1985).
To pretend, children need to be able to think symbolically—to make an
object stand for or symbolize something it is not. Working with symbols is
essential to reading, writing, doing math, reading a map, and writing music.
Language and dramatic play develop together as children learn to create and
Sometimes parents challenge the notion of play, specifically dramatic play,
contending that it is a waste of time and not real learning. Consider responding
with some of these reasons why play is essential to development.
development. Dramatic play enables children to
imagine and execute activities;
explore and manipulate concepts;
focus on tasks;
practice, test, and evaluate skills;
make connections among past experiences;
practice sequential and chronological memory;
think imaginatively; and
represent objects and ideas symbolically.
and emotional development. Pretend play enables children to
develop friendships and trust;
take turns, share, and cooperate;
listen to others;
negotiate and resolve conflicts;
learn the relationship between feeling and behavior;
learn the consequences of behaviors;
safely act out fear or anger;
modify personal behavior to group goals;
understand another person’s point of view; and
development. Dramatic play offers children the ability to
practice small (fine) and large (gross) muscle skills;
develop hand-eye coordination;
develop spatial and distance awareness;
practice flexibility; and
negotiate and adjust physical space needs.
and literacy development. Dramatic play helps children learn to
express ideas freely;
tell and listen to stories;
practice sequence and chronology;
develop activity-specific language;
use language for problem-solving and analysis;
practice oral and written communication; and
direct or respond to ideas and activities.
Building an effective learning center
The learning center where children engage in dramatic play may
be called home living, housekeeping, pretend play, dramatic
play, or living practice. Regardless of what you call it, the
focus is the same. The center offers children a safe, rich,
undirected place to explore relationships with people and things.
Support dramatic play by following these tips:
space for play. Dramatic play need not be limited to the corner of
the room; it occurs all day, inside and out. Make sure the space is safe and
the props appealing. Ideally children will self-select dramatic play groups—usually
three to five children. Encourage this ideal by designating enough space and
providing enough props and dress-up clothes.
enough time for play. Rich dramatic play takes time to develop.
Give children at least 45 minutes in the center. Avoid disruptions from timer
bells that go off every 15 minutes. Such disruptions undermine the skill building
that extended play periods provide. Instead, let play wind down naturally or
simply ask children if they are ready to move on.
prop and material purchases with multi-use, open-ended activities in mind. Simple props that children can use in multiple ways are cost-effective
and offer better creativity experiences than single-focus toys. Make sure props
work properly and are matched to the developmental levels of their users.
play and offer assistance when appropriate. Offer help to children
who lack social experience, are new to the group, or have developmental delays.
Make sure your dramatic play areas are accessible to children with disabilities.
Check materials and ensure that they are appropriate for every child using
them. Make modifications to meet the needs of individual children.
to children’s interests and needs. The most successful dramatic
play is not directed by adults but develops from children’s questions,
curiosity, and need. Observe children’s play and help create activities
that bridge current skills to new opportunities.
storage and organization. Rich dramatic play centers require lots
of props and equipment. Plan how you will rotate materials to keep the center
interesting and how you will store extra supplies. Consider storing props for
each dramatic play theme in a separate box. Enlist families to sew, wash, and
Covering the essentials
Dramatic play activities engage children of all ages, including
infants and toddlers. Remember the first essential is to keep
children safe. Make sure the area is easy to supervise and
props are safe for the children using them.
Provide adequate space for the dramatic play center. Successful centers are
often placed in a corner, offering wall space for a mirror and clothes hooks.
Heavy shelves or props mark the outer boundaries of the space. Establishing
the center near the similarly noisy block and construction center encourages
children to expand their play across both centers.
Infants. Once infants become mobile—crawling, toddling, or walking—a
home-life dramatic play area is appropriate. Infants and toddlers need experiences
with concrete, familiar objects. They typically focus their dramatic play on
domestic or housekeeping themes. They imitate and practice adult roles like
cooking, cleaning, and caring for a baby, repeating activities over and over.
They likely will play side-by-side, learning the body mechanics of moving dishes,
clanging pot tops, and catching a glimpse of themselves in a mirror.
Provide a baby bed for dolls, small rocking chair, full-length mirror, and
low table. Hang simple dress-up props like scarves and hats from wall hooks.
Additional props can include home appliances (purchased or made from wood or
cardboard boxes), a variety of empty food containers, real plastic dishes,
and cooking pots. Make sure you have duplicates of popular props so children
younger than 3 aren’t expected to share.
Keep these materials available throughout the year. Rotate the basic props
periodically to maintain interest and enrich play. As babies become comfortable
in the dramatic play center, add new materials and props like doll blankets,
dressable dolls, squares of sheer fabric (to make house roofs, wedding veils,
and baby blankets), and plastic or wooden fruits and vegetables.
Toddlers. Build dramatic play areas for older toddlers on the infant basics.
Add more props and rotate them more often to encourage exploration and role
playing. Introduce real equipment, like a telephone, alarm clock, or radio
that you have cleaned and stripped of dangerous electrical wires.
Rugs, pillows, and curtains add softness and help absorb sound in this active,
noisy area. Cleaning materials—child-sized brooms and mops, a dustpan,
dust cloths, bucket, sponge, and even a low-noise, battery-operated hand vacuum
cleaner—expand the center and reinforce self-help and socialization concepts.
Preschoolers. Children 3 and older have generally learned to use symbols in
their play. They enjoy a learning center that allows uninhibited practice of
roles and activities. Typical themes include health, safety, and rescue—evidence
of broadening experiences and increasing awareness. Superhero themes and play
that focus on good/evil and weak/strong conflicts reveal the fears and expectations
that children often work out in dramatic play.
As pretend play themes expand, offer children more control over their play.
They aren’t looking to you for solutions to life’s problems and
challenges. Instead children need the time and support to explore complex problems,
roles, and relationships. Watch for and respond to emergent play themes; these
give you a clue to what’s meaningful in their lives.
Offer new materials and props gradually—and always with an explanation
about their function and use. But don’t limit the use of materials. Dramatic
play allows children to turn a block into a telephone and a red cape into a
costume for Superman, Little Red Riding Hood, and a parent going to a party.
Help extend play with gentle direction and then move away gracefully. For example,
Verna wants to join the restaurant play. Help her enter the play and then pull
back. You might say to the group, “Looks like the Morning Call has new
customers coming in.” And to a waiter, “Can we have a table for
two?” After a moment you can break away by hearing a pretend phone ring
and saying, “Oh excuse me! I really have to take this important phone