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Features
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 things.
José: OK. Can Jenny play too? She can throw and catch.
Tonya: OK.

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 manipulate symbols.
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.
Cognitive development. Dramatic play enables children to
imagine and execute activities;
explore and manipulate concepts;
test ideas;
focus on tasks;
plan strategy;
practice, test, and evaluate skills;
make connections among past experiences;
practice sequential and chronological memory;
think imaginatively; and
represent objects and ideas symbolically.
Social 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;
express feelings;
safely act out fear or anger;
modify personal behavior to group goals;
understand another person’s point of view; and
delay gratification.
Physical 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.
Language 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;
increase vocabulary;
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:
Provide 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.
Schedule 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.
Plan 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.
Encourage 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.
Respond 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.
Consider 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 repair props.

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 call.”