A Part of Their World: Adult Roles in Child's Play

I wrote yesterday about the importance of dramatic play in the development of the whole child.  It is true that a large part of the benefit from this type of play comes from the fact that it is intrinsically driven and self-guided.  However, sometimes there is a need for adult interaction or intervention.  While joining in is a natural way to  scaffold the child’s play, helping him to become more competent in the skill, it’s also a lot of fun, and a great way to build a good relationship with kids!

Here are a few ways adults can become involved in creative play with children. I have listed them here in increasing levels of involvement.  One is not necessarily better than the other; different levels of involvement are more appropriate, dependent upon each situation.  You do want to be aware, however, that this is primarily free-play, and you should avoid the temptation to turn it into an adult-centered pageant.

Set the Stage.

The least intrusive role is that of stage crew.  Providing time and space for free play as well as materials for props, encourages dramatic play.  While you’re setting aside chunks of time in your schedule, assigning them to piano lessons, reading time, and chores, be sure you’re also allocating time for children to engage in self-directed play.  Often all a child needs is time without organized sports or lessons or a screen in front of them, and they will naturally begin to engage in creative play.

When you’re thinking about space, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to take much.  My dad once had my own boys playing along with him as though they were a team of astronauts exploring the universe – all from the confinement of their car seats during a long car drive.   What’s important isn’t so much the amount of space, but that  the space invites play and conveys to the children that it’s OK to play there.

You might set up a dramatic play area in your classroom or playroom, or you might want to concentrate on your outdoor play space.  Be intentional in creating your space and consider what type of play it invites.   It has been found that children’s play is more elaborate when their play space allows for organization and division of space.  This means that a playground with structures and landscaping will more readily lend itself to rich play than a flat expanse of grass; an area with child-sized furniture more than an open empty room.

Provide costumes and props that inspire creativity.  While it’s true that there are few substitutes for a fire hat, you will also be grateful for versatile items like scarves that can quickly change from capes to skirts and from masks to hats.  Also take note of the “real-world” items you can use as props, particularly those that expose children to meaningful print and encourage reading and writing (menus, phone books, maps, etc.).

Be in the Audience.

You may be a casual observer of children playing, monitoring to make sure they are successfully working out any problems, and that they are keeping their play within necessary limits (staying within the back yard, for example.)

You may want to make a more studied approach to your observation, taking note of the skills the children may need to develop, the materials and supplies that may be necessary to  enhance future play, or the topics you should explore and discuss together.  After watching a group of children spend several days pretending to be dogs, cats, and owners, I knew that the logical theme for our next study unit would be pets!

You might approach the children and ask them to tell you about what they’re doing, allowing them to process and verbalize the story they’ve been acting out.  This exercise is almost identical to recalling a story they have listened to or read, and therefore fosters comprehension skills.

You may also be formally invited to be the audience for your young performers.  They may want you to sit back and watch the “play”, or they may just continually remind you that they are ninjas – as they run and jump past you on their way to the back yard.  Magnify this role by giving positive, stimulating feedback.  Comment on what happens just as though you were a play-by-play sportscaster (“You saved him just before the dragon came back!”) to reinforce their play and build their language skills.   Encourage more thought as you ask about what the characters are feeling or what they might do next.

Become a Player

Sometimes a child will invite you to join in as another playmate.  Other times you may need to carefully enter the play to redirect undesirable behavior.  Sometimes you may have to start playing alone and invite children to join you to get them to engage in the activity.

In any situation, avoid taking over the leader role in the play any longer than you have to. Make suggestions when necessary (“Paul doesn’t want to be the bad guy, but we really need another good guy to help fly the ship over here.”), but then step back and let the children guide.  Lead with questions (“Where should we go next?”) to encourage the children to take the lead.

Keep in mind that whenever you are a participant, you are directly modeling the skill of “playing”.  Individual children need more coaching in some areas than others, but all children can gain something from observing you.  Be aware of how you use your example to teach social skills like negotiating, including others, and entering and exiting play.  You can also exemplify the creative act of pretending.  Sparking new stories with your imagination teaches children that they can do the same.

How has your involvement influenced the play of those little ones you love and teach?  How has their play influenced you?

Top photo by mrinkk.

Center photo by DAVIDKNOX.



Filed under Learning through Play and Experience

9 Responses to A Part of Their World: Adult Roles in Child's Play

  1. Susan

    Loved this article-thought provoking for me. Just wondering though, my son is really into fish and aquariums. I have acted on his interest, and we have visited a local aquarium several times. He likes to turn a hallway in our home into an aquarium, complete with elevators. I have not offered him any props in his play, but i was thinking i could surprise him by taping some cut-outs of fish, sealife and plants that live in the sea on the walls. Would that squelch his imagination during his dramatic play, or would it enhance it?

    • notjustcute

      Thank you, Susan! It always means a lot to me to hear that what I’m writing is meaningful to you. What a fun son you have – and what a great mother he has! I think adding to your son’s play with sea life pictures could really enhance your son’s play and show that you appreciate his interests. Though since he has already created a mental image of this grand aquarium, I would include him in placing those pictures, rather than surprising him with them. You supply the materials, but let him take charge as the curator since this aquarium already exists in his mind. Have fun together!

  2. Susan

    Thanks for your response and the suggestions too!

  3. Abbi

    My four year old daughter pretends to be a kitten for hours each day. She wakes up in the morning and meows and when I put her to bed she purrs. We are constantly making cat houses and play pet store. I take her on walks outside where she wears a leash around her waist and walks on all fours. We have created cat ears for her and she is requesting a tail.

    I am grateful to have seen your article to remind me of the imporatance of fantasy play. I sometimes tire of pretending along with her and answering her cat requests.
    I am glad to be reminded of the importance of imagination and the role I can take in that.

    • notjustcute

      It sounds like your daughter is definitely passionate about her play! It’s amazing to see their whole world revolve around one thing, and you think that is all they will ever care about. Then a year or so later, you look back and realize it’s something completely different now!

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  5. I have 6-year-old boy/girl twins and my husband I deliberately didn’t schedule “activities” when they were younger, specifically because we wanted our kids to have time to just be kids. Our son is extremely literal, while our daughter has had an imagination that has always amazed us. I think my personal favorite to date is when we were sitting on the couch and she told me her friend Charlie was bouncing on the moon with his dog and suddenly shouted, “Mommy, duck! The spaceship is coming in for a landing!”

    I’ll agree that you don’t need to spend a lot of money; just really pay attention and encourage whatever play they’ve engaged in (assuming it’s safe). The money I spent on a play kitchen and accessories was mostly wasted; they got more use out of taking a book off the bookshelf and pretending it was a recipe book and acting out preparing the “dish”. Paper airplanes and a fan (that can be used as an intercom and a source of lift) have provided a lot of fun (their idea, too!). The laughs came when I heard my son declare on the ‘Airport Airlines intercom’ – “Bubble guppies can sit 6 in a row.”

    Even after starting sports this fall, all I had to do was provide the paper/crayons and tape. They made signs declaring “Animal Soccer Fields” with arrows and posted them all over the house leading to the living room. Stuffed animals were the teams and we were told they were learning teamwork and to keep trying.

    One thing I’ve done with them since they were babies has been to ask them what they dreamed about. For many years, I offered suggestions to just spark their imagination. (i.e. Did you skateboard on the rings of Saturn?”) I consider it a point of pride that my very literal son now tells me things like “we slid down a rainbow and got colors on our pants.”

    Given the opportunity and a little encouragement, kids will find a way to pretend play. That’s why it’s a universal truth that pots and pans become drums and wooden spoons become drumsticks!

    You know, I just wrote all of this and I have no idea why. I guess your post struck a chord. Even without knowing what I was doing, I guess I must’ve been doing something right all along. LOL!

    • notjustcute

      You obviously do know what you’re doing – whether intuitively or otherwise! Thanks for sharing those delightful stories. Your children are so blessed to have you for their mom!

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