Dramatic play, also referred to as pretend play or make-believe, is a common part of early childhood. Children playing house, pretending to talk on the phone, or taking care of stuffed animals to act out the role of a doctor are all examples of dramatic, or pretend, play. While many of us are familiar with what it looks like, you might be less familiar with why this specific type of play is so important for early development.
What is Dramatic Play?
Dramatic play is when children take on a role or character of someone other than themselves. In this type of play, children act out real-world situations that they have seen in real life, on television, or heard in a storybook.
According to Ashley Brooks, author for Collegis Education and Rasmussen College, there are two different types of dramatic play: structured and unstructured. In structured pretend play, children are given scenarios with specific guidelines, such as playing in a pretend doctor’s office or kitchen. Unstructured pretend play gives children the freedom to choose both their roles and the scenario. While these two types of dramatic play are different, both are important to development in the first 5 years.
Why is Dramatic Play Important?
Dramatic, or pretend, play supports social-emotional, language and cognitive development by providing opportunities for children to practice important skills with peers.
Early Childhood News notes that when children engage in dramatic play as a group, it requires them to cooperate and negotiate roles. This gives children the opportunity to share ideas, solve problems together and build conflict resolution skills. “And by recreating some of the life experiences they actually face, they learn how to cope with any fears and worries that may accompany these experiences…They also develop the skills they need to cooperate with their peers (and) learn to control their impulses.”
During pretend play, children draw upon past experiences and events, a process that engages abstract thinking and supports cognitive development. Bright Horizons shares that children can also build math and literacy skills through dramatic play. For example, by pretending to be in a grocery store, children are required to sort foods, communicate about the prices of different items, and use writing skills to create signs and labels.
Dramatic Play Encourages Empathy
According to Tinkergarten, “pretend play is the way that children learn to take different perspectives. When a child makes believe that he is a mama bird, a monster or a firefighter, he starts to explore what it must be like to be that other person or creature. Even though pretend play starts quite simply, early experiences with pretending form strong roots of perspective-taking from which more sophisticated cognitive empathy can grow.”
Inspiring Children’s Interest in Dramatic Play
There are plenty of ways to cultivate this type of learning! View our list below for some ideas to get started.
Set up a prop box: Scholastic encourages creating a prop box filled with objects to spark children’s imagination. Items might include old clothes (shoes, hats, bags, backpacks), old telephones, cooking utensils, dishes, fabric pieces and blankets, and writing materials.
Expand on children’s experiences: Listening to children’s stories and creating a dramatic play center that builds upon those stories gives children an opportunity to explore real-world scenarios in a safe and fun environment. For example, if children share that they are nervous about going to the doctor, set up a pretend doctor’s office that allows children to try out what it might feel like to go to the doctor’s office. They will have an opportunity to ask questions, share their experiences with peers, and gain confidence as they become familiar with what to expect.
Go outdoors: Nature offers a great environment for make-believe. Tinkergarten notes that the outdoors come “complete with inspiring places to run, hide, climb and an endless array of compelling objects that can become anything they need to be.”