When we talk about dramatic play we mean play where children adopt a role and use the environment and props available to them to play out a theme or scenario whether of their own creation or in partnership with others.
Of course, dramatic play is fun. It is playful, creative, imaginative and can involve lots of drama as children adopt personas and delight in their newfound personalities. But learning happens through play too and children develop an abundance of skills during dramatic play. It is an important part of health childhood development.
Imagination & Creativity
At its very core dramatic play requires imagination. As children adopt characters and use props, they immerse themselves in imaginative play- a stick becomes a sword, an empty plate has a big slice of chocolate cake. Children are readily able to switch between their imaginative world and the real world- they will take a break to snack or go the toilet only to return to their character moments later. Imagination and creativity are important skills which are a foundation for problem solving and critical thinking skills as children develop.
Playing in character and interacting with others requires a child to express themselves, their thoughts and ideas and their emotions all through the perspective of their adopted character. This type of play requires the use of expressive language and oftentimes involves new vocabulary too.
A particular dramatic play theme allows a child to explore vocabulary in context. For example, a Firefighter theme introduces language such as extinguisher, smoke alarm, emergency etc in the correct context.
In socio-dramatic play where children play in character with others the need for social skills becomes more apparent. Assigning roles, setting rules, taking turns all require negotiation, self-regulation, and co-operation. All important social skills as children grow and develop that can be explored and practiced through play.
Dramatic play provides an opportunity for children to interact with many print formats in context. A menu in a restaurant play area, a parking ticket in a Garda Station theme, a map in an Army base camp. These are all real-life examples of printed materials that are used in different ways. A child learns that context matters. Posters and signs that incorporate pictures and clear text help introduce new vocabulary in context. Labels on props such as a fire extinguisher in a Firefighter theme allow children understand the relationship between text and the object it represents.
Incorporating writing opportunities give children the opportunity to express interact with text in context. A patient chart in a Doctors theme or a flight checklist in an Airport theme. The level of a child’s literacy is not of importance- whether they are making marks or writing essays they are interacting with text in a contextual way that supports literacy.
Dramatic play allows children to safely explore their own emotions and experiences. In play therapy a particular theme can be used specifically to facilitate a child who needs to process an event in their lives such as a hospital visit. Play allows a child to be in control in the scene and potentially switch places by adopting the adult role.
Children may choose to play out an event that they found challenging or need to process such as the arrival of a sibling. Adopting an alternative persona gives a child security to express themselves and their emotions through the voice of their character.
The very essence of playing a character involves seeing and experiencing the world from different perspectives which is the foundation of empathy. It is not necessary to focus only on the typically caring characters such as Doctors or Veterinarians to promote empathy. Caring for others is common to many of our community professionals from Firefighters to Gardaí, Paramedics to Chefs.
Gross and Fine motor skills
Dramatic play involves the use of props and equipment/furniture. Manipulating props and mastering real world equipment requires coordination and muscle power. Physical activity as part of dramatic play will develop gross motor skills which are essential precursors to fine motor skills, you cannot manipulate small objects with your hands if you do not have the shoulder strength to support you. Fine motor skills are called into use when children manipulate objects in play such as a walkie talkie, a compass, a whisk, or a bandage.
Play is the perfect time for children to practice newly acquired skills. Role play using costumes encourages children to dress themselves. Playing out a role that they have observed in an adult such as sweeping the floor or answering the phone allows the child practice important life skills.
Structured themes give children the chance to practice skills too. A chef theme encourages children to weigh and measure, mix, whisk, set a table, pour a drink. A post office theme encourages matching and sorting, weighing, queuing, wrapping etc. Any theme that requires setting up a play space will encourage a child to lift and move furniture, arrange shelves, organise props. These are all age-appropriate skills.
Blending it all together
One of the greatest benefits of dramatic play is that it develops skills in a blended way rather than discretely. Children are communicating, negotiating and self-regulating whilst simultaneously practicing life skills, literacy, and fine motor skills.
Dramatic play is essentially practicing and preparing for life.
How to encourage dramatic play
- Provide a discrete space for play that can be set up and returned to.
- Include everyday items and real objects as props. Include some open-ended items which can be repurposed into various things e.g. a cardboard box.
- Take your lead from the child. It is not the role of the adult to direct the play but to support it.
- Allow time for play. Dramatic play develops over time and children can engage with it for short bursts or longer periods. Try to build that flexibility in.