Dramatic play, also known as pretend play or imaginative play, has an important role in early intervention and early childhood education, and features prominently in a variety of commercially-available early childhood curricula (e.g., The Creative Curriculum for Preschool; Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2002; The Language Focused Curriculum for Preschool, Bunce, 2008; High/Scope, Hohmann & Weikart, 2002; Core Knowledge Preschool Sequence, Core Knowledge Foundation, 2000). Dramatic play promotes a host of important developmental abilities in children who are typically developing, as well as children who have delays or disabilities. Some of the many developmental abilities that can be strengthened through engaging in dramatic play include: vocabulary, grammar, sequencing, problem solving, social interaction, turn-taking, early literacy, and motor skills, to name a few.
Early childhood educators can integrate dramatic play into their classrooms to foster a wide variety of skills simultaneously. Dramatic play activities introduce children to new vocabulary and grammatical constructions, and allow children to practice using words and grammatical constructions with which they are already familiar. For example, in a classroom featuring a cruise ship themed dramatic play, teachers can introduce children to words such as port and deck, and can practice grammar, including the prepositions across (e.g., “let’s walk across the deck to see the view.”), and over (e.g., “the life boats are stored over the deck in case there is an emergency.”) as well as verbs such as drift and float and adjectives such as shallow and deep. Dramatic play activities can teach children about the sequences of events as well. For example, a doctor’s office themed dramatic play activity might involve having children make an appointment to see the doctor, travel to the doctor’s office, sign in with the receptionist, wait to be called back to the examination room, meet with the doctor, and take a prescription to the pharmacy to be filled. Problem solving is another skill dramatic play can help to foster. In a construction themed dramatic play setting, for example, children can problem solve and work together cooperatively as they try to construct a tall building out of blocks or build a structure according to a blueprint or model. Dramatic play also fosters social interaction and turn-taking, as children talk with one another to act out various roles, and negotiate with one another to take turns playing roles and sharing props and costumes.
Early literacy is yet another area that can be developed though dramatic play activities. Teachers can read books to children that correspond to the ongoing dramatic play activity, they can focus on alphabet letters that are common to some of the dramatic play vocabulary, and they can incorporate environmental print in dramatic play settings (e.g., line forms here, men’s room/women’s room, waiting area) and encourage children to engage in writing (e.g., by signing in at a doctor’s office, by writing down orders at a restaurant). Dramatic play activities also help children build on their fine and gross motor skills. For example, certain dramatic play activities might require that children button, snap, tie, or zip parts of costumes (fine motor), write and draw (fine motor), or maneuver shopping carts (gross motor) and bicycles (gross motor).
Although dramatic play activities can involve props, toys, and costumes, incorporating dramatic play in early childhood education classrooms need not be expensive or elaborate. Children might use a simple wood block to represent a telephone, a microphone, or a box of cereal. Concerning costumes, aprons can be used for a variety of themes, as can white lab coats. Resources for creating materials, lesson plans, and themes for dramatic play are available on the web, and many are free of charge. For example, a web search for “dramatic play ideas” or “dramatic play prop boxes” reveals a number of free or low-cost ideas that early childhood educators can employ in their classrooms. Other resources include books and CDs with lesson plans and props. One such resource is the book Preschoolers at Play!: Building Language and Literacy Through Dramatic Play by Alice K. Wiggins. Preschoolers at Play includes more than 45 themed dramatic play activities as well as a CD with printable play props (e.g., theater tickets) and print labels to be displayed as part of the dramatic play setting (e.g., “Now Showing…..”).
In addition to promoting a variety of important developmental abilities and being free or inexpensive to implement in early childhood classrooms, dramatic play activities can be implemented successfully in classrooms where children are typically developing, as well as in classrooms that include children with disabilities or delays. Dramatic play activities can be tailored to meet the needs of all children by making simple modifications whenever necessary. For example, a range of vocabulary and grammatical constructions can be introduced so that some children can practice using more advanced grammatical constructions (e.g., “Do you have a children’s menu available?”) while other children use shorter scripted phrases and single words (e.g., “Can I help you?”). Teachers might also introduce children to a variety of roles they might play, ranging from simple roles that involve few steps to more complex roles that involve challenging problem solving tasks and additional play sequences. No matter what children’s language or cognitive ability level, dramatic play is a fun and natural way for children to learn. Early childhood educators will likely enjoy setting the stage for and participating in dramatic play as much as their children.
Bunce, B. (2008). Early Literacy in Action: The Language-Focused Curriculum for Preschool. Baltimore: Brookes.
Core Knowledge Foundation (2000). Core Knowledge Preschool Sequence. Charlottesville, VA: Author.
Dodge, D.T., Colker, L., & Heroman, C. (2002). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool. Bethesda, MD: Teaching Stragegies, Inc.
Hohmann, M., & Weikart, D.P. (2002). Educating young children: Active learning practices for preschool and child care programs. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.
Wiggins, A.K (2007). Preschoolers at Play!: Building Language and Literacy Through Dramatic Play. Greenville, SC: Super Duper.
Khara Pence Turnbull, Ph.D. is a Research Analyst in Washington, DC. She is editor of Assessment in Emergent Literacy (Plural Publishing) and author of Language Development from Theory to Practice (Merrill/Prentice Hall).