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The Value of Dramatic Play

Ani

For many, the dramatic play area is the kitchen or housekeeping area—a space sporting a toy oven or sink, a telephone, maybe a baby or some toy food.  In our classroom, we want our students’ dramatic play to push the envelope of what they know.  To do so, we change the layout of the space, provide children with background knowledge, rotate materials, and then simply suggest a different name or label for that area.

Most recently, we explored jobs and roles in our community. We invited parents and families into our classroom to share about their jobs and community roles. To explore and test the challenges of each job, we have used our dramatic play area to further develop what these roles mean.  It has been stunning to see what kind of play and conversations children are truly capable of, which is why we want to share some of our play scenarios and highlight the many reasons dramatic play is central to early childhood learning.

Four Dramatic Play Makeovers

Four examples of how we’ve used our space are as a library, the state legislature, a doctor’s office, and a salon.  Below we outline how we set up each space and the serious play and imagination that the kids brought to each scenario.

As an extension of our collaboration with Fletcher Free Library, we invited one of the youth librarians to visit us and share information about her job.

Afterwards, we prepared the dramatic play area to be a library.  We set up a clipboard with a sheet to sign out books (Name/Title/Date), took a handful of board books and set them up on the shelves and baskets, turned the sink into a labeled book drop.  Students added to the play scenario by pointing out that there were also puzzles at the library, and they incorporated those into our library.

Students organize books and do paperwork at the library.

The children sound out the words ‘no smoking’ as part of the library rules. They sound out S, M, O, K… I: What makes a /k/ sound? I and M: K! M: The S is backwards. I can show you a K that I know

Students use checks, letters, and numbers to fill in the sign out sheet at the library.

After reading “House Mouse, Senate Mouse,” a book about how laws are made, a state representative visited us to teach us about his job.  Next, we set up the state legislature in our dramatic play area.  We moved a small table to the center of the space and placed clipboards, pencils, toy glasses, and uniblocks (which we use for voting in our class) on it.  I picked some books that might be related to the children’s understanding of lawmaking—a book of maps for young children, a book of flags and countries, a guide to Vermont’s animals and plants, and an ABC book about Vermont.

Children interacted with the space by immediately sitting down with the clipboards and starting to talk about what laws they needed to make.  The theme that emerged was saving whales, and later, conservation efforts for other animals.  Children used uniblocks to make microphones and give speeches.   Others referred to the books and pointed out which kind of animals might become extinct if we didn’t do something to change it.  In the observation below, they took votes on who wanted to “help the animals” or who wanted the animals to “get extinct.” C, M, R are talking about saving animals in the dramatic play area. C: “Scientist truck! This is what the water looks like. If they come down the pipes, he’ll be stuckt.” R: “Just the whales will be stuckt. M, we have to save the green whale!” They run to the book area to save the animals and bring them back. C holds up a picture she’s drawn of pipes to show how animals get caught. She calls for a vote to see who wants to save the animals. “If you want to save the animals, raise your hand; if you want the animals to die, raise your hand.” She uses uniblocks to make two towers and holds the two up to see which is taller. (She doesn’t make sure that the number of blocks is equal to the number of votes.). M: “They’re the same.” C removes blocks from one tower to make it shorter. M calls for another vote: “Who wants to save animals? Who wants to get animals estinct?” He counts, 1, 2, 3…, pointing to their hands. Teacher: “What kind of workers do you need to save the animals?” Children’s answers included plumbers, my dad and me, animal rescue, scientists, police, and the government. I: There’s a weird deployment and the comment… there is a little girl who’s trying to eat a whale but she can’t catch one and that’s why it’s a weird appointment. …The US is trying to be a government but they never can because there is a problem with the whales and they’re trying to fix it. R: The whale is lost to the sea and it’s swimming back to its home. M: And the whale was at the museum but it got lost at sea so we have to save it. I: We can’t save the state government of the United States and we work for the government and we tried to save the whales but they are too quick to dead.

A nurse practitioner visited to share about her job.  She left behind some materials for us to use, such as gloves, masks, popsicle sticks, gauze, wraps, and a beautiful book about human anatomy.  We incorporated x-rays, doctor/nurse/surgeon dress up clothes, a toy stethoscope, scissors, clipboards, and patient forms (complete with carbon copies attached!). We also added some informational pamphlets from the hospital and clinic.

The students took advantage of the materials by interviewing patients for their important information, such as their names, where they live, and what was bothering them. They filled in health information pamphlets with emergent writing. “I wrote a lot of checks and hearts to show how many people got hurt.”

I was surprised by how thorough students were in their examinations.  They listened to me breathe as they checked my chest and back with a stethoscope, they took x-rays and examined them, they told me to schedule follow-up appointments.  They also practiced empathy by asking questions about how patients were feeling, and they practiced patience and turn-taking by negotiating who got to examine which patients and who got to use which materials.

A parent who is a makeup artist visited to share about her job. She showed the materials she uses and gave a demonstration. To set up a salon, we put out three chairs, several brushes and bottles, a small spray bottle, smocks, a basket with magazines, a register, a phone and phone book, and watercolor pencils.

The children took turns being the customer or the worker. They paid and used the register, bringing you change for your money after you paid. They asked peers about which colors they’d like on their nails or how they would like their hair.

Dramatic Play Learning: What’s Going on Behind the Scenes

Language Development: One benefit of dramatic play, probably the most evident one, is the opportunity for rich language and conversation.  The nature of dramatic play requires that children use language to effectively convey meaning.  This incentive prompts students to use “literate” language, which is language that lays the foundation for reading, writing, and academic success later in life.  Children retell stories, incorporate new and specific vocabulary relevant to the scenario at hand, and imitate conversations that they’ve heard.  And every time you hear a child say “Let’s pretend we’re the doctors and you’re the patient” or any other description of an imaginary situation, you witness this literary language helping them communicate abstract ideas to those around them.

Problem Solving: This goes hand in hand with the another benefit of dramatic play, which is the negotiation and problem solving that students must navigate in order to participate in the same play scenario.  Children have to negotiate roles, establish the general direction and story line of what they’re doing, share materials, and balance the dynamics of differentiating imaginary play from real world relationships.

Emergent Writing: Another goal in extending our community role learning into the dramatic play area was to provide ample opportunity to practice emergent writing skills.  When students take on the roles they see in the world around them, it makes sense that they would want to write down many things as an integral part of their play.  Doctors fill out forms on their patients, social workers ask for the information of the people they’re helping, librarians keep a record of the books being checked out, legislators keep notes of their sessions and conferences… and a clipboard can go a long way!  Adults can help scaffold these early reading and writing skills by finding ways to incorporate writing into play scenarios.  When children see adults modeling this skill, they quickly pick it up.

Social Studies: The Jobs and Community Roles unit has a clear social studies focus.  Children begin to explore and understand the ways in which people live and make a living, basics concepts of economy and commerce, and how communities work and meet the different needs of their members.  Students explore different scripts they already have about what a firefighter, doctor, or teacher does.  Teachers take opportunities to deepen learning by introducing new scripts or prompting critical thinking about the scripts with which the students engage.  For example, children might know that doctors enter a room, examine the patient, and then leave.  They might not think about how the doctor documents the visit or orders extra tests, or how the patient checks in and checks out of the office.

Ultimately, if we’re not seeing the kind of dramatic play we want, it’s up to us to shake things up, introduce new materials, and stretch children to the edge of their knowledge.  If we are willing to think outside of the box, children have imaginations that are up to the challenge.

Chris
Construction
Doctor 1
Doctor 2
Doctor 3
Doctor 4
Doctor 5
Doctor 6
Doctor 7
DSC_9493
Jaime
Legislature 2
Legislature 3
Legislature 4
Legistlature 1
Library 1
Library 2
Library 3
Library 4
Megan
Picture R
Salon 1
Salon 2
Salon 3
Salon 4
Salon 5

Four Dramatic Play Makeovers

Four examples of how we’ve used our space are as a library, the state legislature, a doctor’s office, and a salon.  Below we outline how we set up each space and the serious play and imagination that the kids brought to each scenario.

As an extension of our collaboration with Fletcher Free Library, we invited one of the youth librarians to visit us and share information about her job.

Afterwards, we prepared the dramatic play area to be a library.  We set up a clipboard with a sheet to sign out books (Name/Title/Date), took a handful of board books and set them up on the shelves and baskets, turned the sink into a labeled book drop.  Students added to the play scenario by pointing out that there were also puzzles at the library, and they incorporated those into our library.

Students organize books and do paperwork at the library.

The children sound out the words ‘no smoking’ as part of the library rules. They sound out S, M, O, K… I: What makes a /k/ sound? I and M: K! M: The S is backwards. I can show you a K that I know

Students use checks, letters, and numbers to fill in the sign out sheet at the library.

After reading “House Mouse, Senate Mouse,” a book about how laws are made, a state representative visited us to teach us about his job.  Next, we set up the state legislature in our dramatic play area.  We moved a small table to the center of the space and placed clipboards, pencils, toy glasses, and uniblocks (which we use for voting in our class) on it.  I picked some books that might be related to the children’s understanding of lawmaking—a book of maps for young children, a book of flags and countries, a guide to Vermont’s animals and plants, and an ABC book about Vermont.

Children interacted with the space by immediately sitting down with the clipboards and starting to talk about what laws they needed to make.  The theme that emerged was saving whales, and later, conservation efforts for other animals.  Children used uniblocks to make microphones and give speeches, as you can see in the video below (Legislature video).   Others referred to the books and pointed out which kind of animals might become extinct if we didn’t do something to change it.  In the observation below, they took votes on who wanted to “help the animals” or who wanted the animals to “get extinct.” C, M, R are talking about saving animals in the dramatic play area. C: “Scientist truck! This is what the water looks like. If they come down the pipes, he’ll be stuckt.” R: “Just the whales will be stuckt. M, we have to save the green whale!” They run to the book area to save the animals and bring them back. C holds up a picture she’s drawn of pipes to show how animals get caught. She calls for a vote to see who wants to save the animals. “If you want to save the animals, raise your hand; if you want the animals to die, raise your hand.” She uses uniblocks to make two towers and holds the two up to see which is taller. (She doesn’t make sure that the number of blocks is equal to the number of votes.). M: “They’re the same.” C removes blocks from one tower to make it shorter. M calls for another vote: “Who wants to save animals? Who wants to get animals estinct?” He counts, 1, 2, 3…, pointing to their hands. Teacher: “What kind of workers do you need to save the animals?” Children’s answers included plumbers, my dad and me, animal rescue, scientists, police, and the government. I: There’s a weird deployment and the comment… there is a little girl who’s trying to eat a whale but she can’t catch one and that’s why it’s a weird appointment. …The US is trying to be a government but they never can because there is a problem with the whales and they’re trying to fix it. R: The whale is lost to the sea and it’s swimming back to its home. M: And the whale was at the museum but it got lost at sea so we have to save it. I: We can’t save the state government of the United States and we work for the government and we tried to save the whales but they are too quick to dead.

A nurse practitioner visited to share about her job.  She left behind some materials for us to use, such as gloves, masks, popsicle sticks, gauze, wraps, and a beautiful book about human anatomy.  We incorporated x-rays, doctor/nurse/surgeon dress up clothes, a toy stethoscope, scissors, clipboards, and patient forms (complete with carbon copies attached!). We also added some informational pamphlets from the hospital and clinic. (Doctor 4)

The students took advantage of the materials by interviewing patients for their important information, such as their names, where they live, and what was bothering them. They filled in health information pamphlets with emergent writing. “I wrote a lot of checks and hearts to show how many people got hurt.”

I was surprised by how thorough students were in their examinations.  They listened to me breathe as they checked my chest and back with a stethoscope, they took x-rays and examined them, they told me to schedule follow-up appointments.  They also practiced empathy by asking questions about how patients were feeling, and they practiced patience and turn-taking by negotiating who got to examine which patients and who got to use which materials.

A parent who is a makeup artist visited to share about her job. She showed the materials she uses and gave a demonstration. To set up a salon, we put out three chairs, several brushes and bottles, a small spray bottle, smocks, a basket with magazines, a register, a phone and phone book, and watercolor pencils.

The children took turns being the customer or the worker. They paid and used the register, bringing you change for your money after you paid. They asked peers about which colors they’d like on their nails or how they would like their hair.

Dramatic Play Learning: What’s Going on Behind the Scenes

Language Development: One benefit of dramatic play, probably the most evident one, is the opportunity for rich language and conversation.  The nature of dramatic play requires that children use language to effectively convey meaning.  This incentive prompts students to use “literate” language, which is language that lays the foundation for reading, writing, and academic success later in life.  Children retell stories, incorporate new and specific vocabulary relevant to the scenario at hand, and imitate conversations that they’ve heard.  And every time you hear a child say “Let’s pretend we’re the doctors and you’re the patient” or any other description of an imaginary situation, you witness this literary language helping them communicate abstract ideas to those around them.

Problem Solving: This goes hand in hand with the another benefit of dramatic play, which is the negotiation and problem solving that students must navigate in order to participate in the same play scenario.  Children have to negotiate roles, establish the general direction and story line of what they’re doing, share materials, and balance the dynamics of differentiating imaginary play from real world relationships.

Emergent Writing: Another goal in extending our community role learning into the dramatic play area was to provide ample opportunity to practice emergent writing skills.  When students take on the roles they see in the world around them, it makes sense that they would want to write down many things as an integral part of their play.  Doctors fill out forms on their patients, social workers ask for the information of the people they’re helping, librarians keep a record of the books being checked out, legislators keep notes of their sessions and conferences… and a clipboard can go a long way!  Adults can help scaffold these early reading and writing skills by finding ways to incorporate writing into play scenarios.  When children see adults modeling this skill, they quickly pick it up.

Social Studies: The Jobs and Community Roles unit has a clear social studies focus.  Children begin to explore and understand the ways in which people live and make a living, basics concepts of economy and commerce, and how communities work and meet the different needs of their members.  Students explore different scripts they already have about what a firefighter, doctor, or teacher does.  Teachers take opportunities to deepen learning by introducing new scripts or prompting critical thinking about the scripts with which the students engage.  For example, children might know that doctors enter a room, examine the patient, and then leave.  They might not think about how the doctor documents the visit or orders extra tests, or how the patient checks in and checks out of the office.

Ultimately, if we’re not seeing the kind of dramatic play we want, it’s up to us to shake things up, introduce new materials, and stretch children to the edge of their knowledge.  If we are willing to think outside of the box, children have imaginations that are up to the challenge.

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