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Using Dramatic Play as a Tool for Processing

Classroom Development

9/22/2021 | Sasha Kopp

In my blog post “Creating a Socially and Emotional Responsive Environment,” one of the ideas for supporting children’s emotional processing was focusing on creating a dynamic dramatic play area. The dramatic play area is one where children can imagine and wonder, play make-believe, and dress up. They take on roles that are based in fantasy or reality, and sometimes both simultaneously.

Creating an imaginative space helps foster engaged play and gives children the opportunity to work through real-life challenges, curiosities, and questions. Oftentimes, dramatic play areas are created to be child-sized kitchen areas with plastic pretend food. This is a great way to engage some children in a familiar game of house. However, there are ways to change the dramatic play area to encourage a more diverse group of kids to play and so that the type of play changes throughout the year. Through encouraging a variety of play, children with different personalities and interests can process, explore, and imagine. There are many ways to add new twists to the traditional dramatic play area. Here are a few ideas for your classroom: 

1. Mix it up

The dramatic play area should change throughout the year. Things change in children’s lives, and it’s exciting to use the dramatic play area as a place that is reflective of their day-to-day life scenarios. It’s important to follow children’s interests and listen to the stories they tell you to inspire new ways to set up the dramatic play area. At this time, many children are very curious about health and COVID. As a response to that, teachers can add pretend or old doctor’s equipment, dolls, stuffed bears, and masks to “play” doctor and patient. Teachers can also add clipboards and pencils to add a literacy component. Other fun themes include a pizza restaurant, grocery store, an office, a construction site, an apple orchard, and more! The children themselves also typically have the best ideas – you can always ask them and let them choose!

Children like to be able to engage and revisit each area multiple times but changing it once every month or two gives children a variety of opportunities to explore themes and also helps them have new props and environments to help them reflect upon different aspects of their world.

2. Update Props 

Some of our older props are not representative of the sights and sounds of today’s children’s lives. We no longer need plastic rotary phones in classrooms – children do not even recognize them as phones! We can add props that are exciting and inspiring to children by looking around their world. Old iPhone and keyboards are very exciting for children to play with either in a “home” or “office” dramatic play setting. Also, companies that make pretend food have added new options such as sushi and noodles. It’s important to have food and other cultural artifacts in your classroom community that represent the children and their lives outside of school.

Another way to incorporate diverse props is to use real objects, either objects donated from families or also through using recycled materials. The best way to find a box of cereal that looks like what children in your classroom eat is just to bring in an old box!  Children love to feed baby dolls pretend food right out of old and repurposed baby food containers and jars. Lastly, adding a book basket of thematic books next to the dramatic play area helps create inspiration for continued learning.

3. Open-Ended Materials

Open-ended materials are ones that can be used in a variety of ways. A rock or a pine cone can be both an apple as well as an iPad. It is up to the children to decide what uses and characteristics to assign each prop as they play together. This type of play fuels cognitive development by giving children the opportunity to work on symbolic play. This is when an object literally is a symbol for something completely different – this is also a great pre-literacy skill!

Oftentimes, open-ended materials are natural objects such as rocks, pinecones, acorns, and small sticks. Some educators like to cut out felt shapes and put them in different containers for children to explore.  Another type of open-ended materials can be recycled objects  —plastic bottle caps, carpet squares, and fabrics can all be incorporated into the dramatic play area. When the environment is open-ended, children are more likely to be able to play that represents what is truly on their minds...being able to explore what is authentic to them encourages children to put words to their fears, questions, and curiosities.

4. Boxes

Boxes are one way to create a truly open-ended dramatic play area. If you remove the furniture and just put out some large boxes children will truly be able to immerse themselves in play. I have witnessed boxes become cars, subways, zoos, and more! Children can create their own props, signs, and art to embellish the boxes to help create a dramatic play area that is representative of their ideas.  In fact, they don’t have to be used just in the classroom’s area, cardboard boxes are also a fun addition to add to any playground.! It’s important to remember that children’s imaginations know no bounds and anywhere there is an opportunity for more imaginative play there will be children ready to participate!

Dramatic play is an essential part of not only any preschool classroom but of childhood. It gives children the opportunity to imagine the world as it can be. They get the opportunity to be powerful and to assign roles, navigate social situations, and solve problems. The social skills developed during imaginative play are essential, and many children haven’t had the ability to practice sharing, role-taking, and taking turns while isolated in COVID. Creating an inspiring environment for open-ended, imaginative play helps more children gravitate to this area, and continue to build these essential life skills. Though creating opportunities that are open-ended or reflective of children’s lives, children will gravitate to the area and focus more on what Mr. Rogers believes is the real work of childhood – play!

Sasha Kopp is a community early childhood and family engagement consultant for The Jewish Education Project and an adjunct professor at American Jewish University. Sasha has worked in a variety of teaching and administrative roles in early childhood programs in Boston, Los Angeles, and New York. You can connect with Sasha through her website at sashakopp.com or through Twitter @SashaKopp.

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