"Let’s pretend” is a phrase frequently overheard among young children, whether in a classroom; on a playground; or at home with brothers, sisters, and friends. It is through imaginative play that children begin to understand and explore the world around them. By undertaking various character roles, children express their feelings and thoughts in a non-threatening environment. To enhance and encourage the optimum level of dramatic play for children, the environment has to be well planned, equipped, changed, and constantly evaluated.
Importance of Dramatic Play
When children enter the world of dramatic play, creativity and imagination begin. If the designated dramatic play area has a blue carpet, it is no longer only a blue carpet. It may be transformed into an ocean, a lake, or a pond. In the child’s world of pretend, what is real becomes a pretend item and that item takes on real characteristics.
The dramatic play environment also invites and encourages the interaction of children. The theme of a dramatic play center and its materials need to be exciting for the children to entice them to come to this area and play. If the environment is set up as a grocery store, the cash register, shelves stocked with empty food boxes, signs, shopping baskets, play money, and brown bags invite the children to come and take on various roles. These roles may include shoppers, cashiers, baggers, person stocking shelves, or a person pricing items. By providing opportunities for different roles, interaction among the children will occur.
As the children become involved in different role-playing activities and interact among themselves, language will be encouraged and will emerge. As the center changes themes, language will expand, encompassing new words and phrases. When this area is arranged as a doctor’s office, the new words that could be used and learned include bandage, stethoscope, x-ray, sling, smock, blood-pressure band, band-aids, disposable gloves, crutches and prescription pad. As the children interact and speak, they will begin to share materials. Cooperative play is encouraged in this center. If a post office is created, the children will share the stamp pad, rubber stamps, scale, money, telephone, mailbox, calculator, pencils, mailbag, and hat.
By designing and labeling materials within a center, you can further enhance literacy skills. The children can associate a word with the actual item. In setting up a hardware store, for example, shelves and containers need to be labeled for the different items, e.g. paint, brushes, hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers, nails, screws, measuring tapes, ruler, wood scraps, and sandpaper. With such a theme, play may extend to other classroom areas such as the block area and the woodworking bench. As the children make their purchases of nails, sandpaper, and wood, they can proceed to the workbench and create a wood item. Make sure that goggles are provided at the workbench area and that a teacher is there at all times. In addition to word recognition, categorization and classification skills are also developed. During clean-up time, those skills will be used.
Finally, the children have fun and express themselves in a way that is non-threatening. Whether the environment is a sports shop, hat shop, travel agency or airport, the children have a chance to be “grown-up” but in a child’s perspective and environment.
Arranging and Using the Dramatic Play Center
In designing this center for your children, use a large space, which allows for furniture and equipment as well as low bookcases used as dividers, shelving and storage for theme materials. Providing storage areas will assist the children in center maintenance and will help facilitate clean-up time. Since this is an active play area, it needs to be placed away from quiet centers.
After deciding on a theme for this center, the children may assist in its set-up. They can brainstorm what materials may be found in a theme. For instance, if you are planning an office, the children might suggest the following props: paper, pencils, pens, stamps, notepads, calendars, pictures, tape dispenser, desk, chairs, file folders, telephone, computer and envelopes. Allow the children to help design where the desk and computer need to be. It will become a problem-solving activity for them in that they will need to provide an electrical source for the computer. The children can arrange containers for the accessories. Use real materials for the props but keep health and safety matters in mind. By including the children in this set-up process, they develop a positive “ownership” for this play area. In guiding the children in selecting materials, remind them that not all materials need to be used at once, but that materials may be rotated. Help keep this area simple and flexible so that it does not become overwhelming for the children. Plan ways in which this dramatic play theme can extend to other curriculum areas. Perhaps a parent who works in an office can visit and describe what is in her office.
When the children begin using this center, observe if any materials might be needed to further enhance creative play. There may be times when the number of children using the center needs to be limited, e.g. exercise studio, submarine, ice cream shop.
Dramatic Play Themes
The themes for your dramatic play center may emerge from other curriculum areas. If studying homes, an architect’s office could be designed. Various rooms of a house may be featured weekly. While learning about nutrition, a grocery store, bakery, pizza shop, restaurant or fast food outlet could be integrated into that center. A bank, including an ATM machine, could be designed when discussing money or places in the community. When studying plants, a florist shop or garden center would be appropriate. A camping area could be designed when learning about the outdoor environment.
Field trips can also influence your dramatic play center. A trip to a play would encourage the children to design their own theater and to put on their own plays. Visiting a newspaper office, fire station or police station would lend to the center becoming those specific buildings hosting the activities found there. You can also visit a dentist’s office, a local library, and a veterinarian’s office.
Literature can also be used to develop a dramatic play center. A purple room could be designed when the children hear stories such as Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon. After listening to Jan Brett’s Armadillo Rodeo, a rodeo setting might be planned.
Cultural themes can also be expressed in this center. By designing a Japanese-style home, the children would have experiences sitting on the floor at low tables, eating using rice bowls and chopsticks, designing rice paper windows, wearing kimonos, and painting and hanging Japanese scrolls.
Through the use of a well-designed dramatic play center with open-ended materials, children explore and express themselves in a non-threatening environment. By frequently changing this center and materials, the children are exposed to new learnings and encouraged to grow developmentally. Take time and enjoy this center with the children.
Sandra Fisher is an Assistant Professor of Elementary Education and the Coordinator of the Early Learning Center at Kutztown University, Kutztown, PA. With over 25 years of early childhood teaching experience, she frequently presents at national, state and local conferences. Her book, Early Childhood Themes Using Art Masterpieces, is published by Teacher Created Materials.