Children can spend hours engaged in make-believe worlds, where they pretend to be anything from a fairy to an astronaut to a ferocious beast. This individual expression is important in early childhood development, and children of all levels of physical and cognitive abilities can learn from dramatic play. For toddlers and preschoolers, it is the process of dramatic play that is the important factor because it is this process that expands their awareness of self and of others.
Social and Emotional Development
Dramatic play provides a safe environment where children can experiment with conflict, role-playing and problem solving. Re-enacting real-life experiences and situations teaches them how to cope with fears and situations that concern or confuse them. For example, a child worried about getting a shot might pretend to be a doctor because this role allows the child take control of a situation that is scary. When dramatic play involves several children, it encourages the children to learn how to cooperate with each other. If the dramatic play requires two or more playmates, they must resolve any fights or disagreements, or else play time will end.
As they assume each new role in their dramatic play, children often wear costumes or dress up dolls and stuffed animals. This dress-up play helps to develop small motor skills as they fasten buttons or zippers or attempt to tie shoelaces. Puppetry and the process of sorting items for each game are also beneficial. Putting away the props when they’re through playing also helps children to improve hand-eye coordination and visual discernment skills.
Children practice abstract thinking simply by using their imaginations to envision their make-believe world, but this is just one way that dramatic play encourages cognitive development. Children also explore math concepts when they pretend to work in a grocery store and must learn how to organize, predict and plan the sequence of events before they play so that everyone has a role and the tools needed to play it. A child might scribble out a pretend letter or draw symbols for a grocery list while playing. These early symbols might have no meaning for adults, but they are the building blocks for learning to read and write.
Dramatic play involving more than one child promotes language development as children ask each other to play and discuss what they’re doing. While they play, children continue to practice and develop language skills as they speak and listen to each other. Language development can also occur in solitary dramatic play. For example, children playing with a car are practicing language sounds as they mimic the sound of the engine or the horn. A child dressing up dolls and making them act out a scenario is also practicing language skills.
Encouraging Dramatic Play
Engaging and effective dramatic play requires supportive parents and caregivers. The adult’s role is to provide the time and materials necessary for children to play in comfortable, natural ways. A system of themed boxes or stations is one of the simplest ways to encourage dramatic play in young children. Fill each box or area with items related to a dramatic theme. For example, a grocery store theme might include food containers, a toy register and play money. Preparing the props for dramatic play also allows parents and caregivers to ensure that the items played with are appropriate and safe for the age level of the children.