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.