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“Let’s play house. I’ll be the mom, and you be the Dear.” This is one of my favorite lines I’ve ever observed in the dramatic play area of a laboratory preschool. Dramatic play is known by its more common monikers, such as dress-up, playing house, or playing pretend. Whatever the name, it is an enchanting play situation for young children where they can be whoever, or whatever, they wish. While it is an empowering escape into the world of fantasy, it also a huge tool for learning and growth in the child’s development.
Making Sense of this Crazy World
Dramatic Play is frequently used by children as a cognitive processing tool. The may use it to imitate familiar roles or to explore both familiar and new situations. This is why playing “house” is so popular for children. They are taking on roles they see everyday, but they are roles they don’t usually get a shot at in real life. When a child becomes the daddy, he imitates the most salient characteristics of his father figure. If he sees his father as a powerful person (if only because he gets to drive the car), he may portray the daddy as a very demanding and forceful person. While imitating the roles to the best of their own understanding, they are also exploring what other possibilities lie within those roles. Can he be a superhero and save the day and then take care of the baby too?
Children often re-enact frightening and difficult situations as a means to overcoming, mastering, and feeling power in those situations. A child who was frightened by a snake during a camp out may be the one to tame the snake or scare it away in a reenactment. Children will also create fantasy situations (I’m a princess and you’re Superman.) as a means of feeling power and satisfaction, or simply escaping from reality. Dramatic play gives children the opportunity to communicate things that are beyond their verbal levels, and wonder out loud about social situations.
The School of Performing Arts
No one would debate whether or not children are having fun engaging in this type of play, but the learning taking place is effective and important. While your own child’s portrayal of “the mommy” may be an exaggerated caricature of your actual character, it is your child’s best attempt to see things the way Mommy sees things, and do things the way she would. It is one of the first means by which a young child displays empathy, an advanced social skill for ego-centric, concrete thinkers. To reword a Vygotskian idea, as a sister in a family, a child merely acts as “self” without thinking of herself as filling a role. As a “sister” in a play situation, a child considers what that role means, as well as what a sister might feel or how she might respond. Additionally, social skills are enhanced during dramatic play as children work together as “directors” and “script writers”, negotiating and cooperating along the way.
These negotiations, as well as the production of play itself also build language and literacy skills. The children use language as they build their scripts and communicate their ideas. When the dramatic play area is set up in conjunction with a thematic unit (example: Building and Construction) they will use new vocabulary words specific to the setting (“Let’s build the foundation here.”). Representational play also paves the way for reading. Accepting that the scribbles c-a-t represent that fuzzy meowing thing is much more easily done if you can also accept that an empty box represents a castle. Additionally, children will often implement developmental writing as part of performing a role (waitress, postal worker, doctor,etc.). As the “script” unfolds with its many players, children explore different twists to their plots and create new possibilities and solutions. This process fosters inquiry, creativity, and cognitive growth as it forces children to think abstractly.
There’s a Place for Us
While preschool rooms often have designated dramatic play areas, and the act of dressing up and pretending is unmistakable, young children engage in dramatic play in many ways and during many different activities. Any time a child is using abstract thinking and creating a new role or situation, he/she is engaging in dramatic play. This may present itself as a storyline in the block area (This is the tower where the princess is kept, and this is the factory where we build the rockets to get to her.) in the sensory table (This rice is snow, and now my truck is buried!), or right in front of our eyes when we are unaware (I’m Spider man, but nobody knows because right now I’m Peter Parker.) So the next time your children insist on wearing gloves on a 90+ degree day because “that’s what superheroes do,” or open the fridge to talk to pretend friends, remember that they are engaged in some of the most important work in their job called play.