Imaginative play

We regularly use the phrase dramatic play when we talk about our little uniforms and resources so we think it is a good idea to explain what exactly we mean.

To give a bit of background; the terms pretend play, role play, and dramatic play tend to be used interchangeably to mean broadly the same thing, but there are differences between them depending on the complexity of the play. They all come under an umbrella term of imaginative play which is a broad spectrum of play methods that reply on a child using their imagination and creativity. It includes fantasy play, dolls, small world play, puppets, loose parts etc.

Pretend play

Pretend play is exactly what it says- it involves pretending that an object or person is something else. A pile of blocks become a house, a stick is a wand or a sword. This evolves into more complex scenarios such as a teddy bears picnic where cups are full of imaginary drinks and plates filled with make-believe cake. Pretend play is a relatively simple form of imaginative play and a young child can engage in this type of play on their own or in company.

The natural next step in complexity following pretend play is role-play.


Role-play is when someone, in this case a child, takes on the role of a specific character or behaviour. It could be a princess, a story book character, or someone they know. Role-play can be as simple as a child mimicking an adult answering the phone or sweeping the floor. In the context of our community professionals, a child could adopt the character of a Garda, or they could be someone in need of help, they could be a thief or a lost child. These are all specific roles, and each character will behave differently or have a different persona. Role-play allows a child to experience different perspectives as lived experiences. Playing a specific role gives a child permission to try things without fear of failure. It provides an opportunity to mimic behaviour, explore emotions (negative or positive) and work through their own experiences.

Dramatic play

As play becomes more complex role-play evolves to include objects and props as well as the play environment. In our example of Garda Síochána, once a child playing the role of a Garda starts to use the physical set up of chairs and a desk or a book of tickets or car they are now engaging in dramatic play. The play becomes more complex and allows the child to experience a wide range of new learning opportunities in the context of play. They manipulate props, interact with print materials, solve problems, think critically, and exercise their imagination.

Dramatic play is an important part of early childhood development and there are enormous benefits of this type of play. In summary the child will develop oral language, communication, self regulation, problem solving, gross and fine motor skills, emotional expression, empathy, literacy and so much more. We take a look at the wide range of developmental benefits of dramatic play here.

An additional superstar features of dramatic play is that it lends itself to the inclusion of so many other play types. Bricks and blocks added to a building site theme and now a child is engaged in construction. Add a training area for Firefighters and you have added in physical play. Include lists, menus and notice boards into a restaurant play are and you have included literacy and numeracy.

Dramatic play can be spontaneous and short in duration, taking up an afternoon of fort building and camping indoors or it can be a month long theme used to facilitate child-led exploration and discovery. It can act as a fun filled prism through which to discover new concepts and satisfy the most independent little learner.

Socio-dramatic play

The most advanced and complex form of dramatic play is socio-dramatic play when children play together, under a particular scenario, theme, or set-up. It involves co-operation, collaboration, and communication. Individuals within the group role-play different characters and interact with each other and their environment whilst in those character roles. Children may come up with their own set of rules for the play or create scenarios to be acted out. There are complex emotional and social situations to be navigated as part of socio-dramatic play and children are required to self-regulate, play by the rules, and work together to make it a success.

As children move from a simple pretend play situation to a complex socio-dramatic set up the child becomes more personally involved in the play, they go from manipulating an object to being fully immersed in a character. Similarly, the developmental benefits increase from imagination and creativity skills in pretend play through to social, emotional and communication skills in socio-dramatic play.

Learning through play is a completely natural thing for children to do. Not only does play come with a wealth of developmental benefits but it is fun too!

Our complimentary printable resources support dramatic play at home and in the classroom.