You smile as your three-year-old darts past you, declaring he’s a pirate stranded on a desert island—also known as the pile of pillows he stacked up in the living room. His siblings trail behind, each wearing an array of dress-up clothes and choosing a swashbuckling pirate identity for themselves.
Your kids’ pirate adventures may just seem like some simple afternoon of fun, but they’re actually engaging in a positive learning experience called dramatic play. You may have heard of dramatic play before, but you’re not quite sure what it is or why it matters for your kids.
Something as simple as an hour of pretend playtime may not seem important, but dramatic play offers proven benefits in children’s cognitive learning, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). We have the scoop on what dramatic play entails, why it matters and how you can encourage this activity with your kids.
What is dramatic play?
Dramatic play may sound like a fancy educational term, but it’s something you’re probably already familiar with. “Dramatic play, also called pretend play, involves acting out real-world situations and taking on the roles of different characters,” says Lily Jones, former kindergarten teacher and founder of Curiosity Pack.
"Children use dramatic play to explore their own thoughts & feelings."
There are two types of dramatic play: structured and unstructured. Unstructured dramatic play gives children the freedom to choose their own roles and play scenarios. Structured dramatic play, on the other hand, has specific guidelines, according to Child Care Exchange. Children are presented with a pre-determined scenario and then must make choices and discover solutions.
Both structured and unstructured dramatic play are important for your children’s emotional and social development. Maybe you remember dramatic play from your own childhood as “make-believe” or “playing house.” Whatever you want to call it, it’s an important opportunity for kids to act out scenarios from the real world and fictional lands alike.
5 reasons why dramatic play is important
Dramatic play is an integral part of a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development, according to NAEYC. Here are five important aspects of dramatic play:
1. Dramatic play teaches self-regulation
Toddlers and preschoolers are known for acting impulsively, but dramatic play is a positive stepping stone toward self-regulation. NAEYC notes that children tend to be highly motivated to follow rules and stick to the roles of the play. This helps them grow in their ability to inhibit their impulses, coordinate with others and make plans.
2. Dramatic play gives children an emotional outlet
Dramatic play allows kids to act out scenarios they’ve seen or heard in real life, giving them an important emotional outlet. “Young children do not yet think internally,” explains Barbara E. Harvey, executive director of Parents, Teachers and Advocates. “Children use dramatic play to explore their own thoughts and feelings.”
This is especially important for children who have seen something upsetting or scary in their daily lives. Dramatic play gives them an opportunity to sort through difficult emotions and “practice being in the world,” according to Jones.
3. Dramatic play teaches conflict resolution
Both unstructured and structured dramatic play offer teachable moments about conflict resolution. Disagreements between children will crop up naturally during unstructured dramatic play, which offers a chance for kids to work through their differences and arrange a compromise.
Dramatic play encourages children to resolve conflict, consider alternative perspectives and recognize the various roles and responsibilities individuals have in our society, according to Child Care Exchange. Structured dramatic play encourages children to consider a specific problem and propose their own solutions.
4. Dramatic play supports literacy
Dramatic play provides a prime opportunity for kids to see “functional print”—like newspapers, signs or menus—in action, according to Scholastic. Kids who are playing grocery store, for example, will be exposed to text in the form of a shopping list, coupons and a checkout receipt. This gives them a chance to gain firsthand experience with the many ways we use text in everyday life.
Dramatic play can also increase reading comprehension. Kids often choose to act out scenes from a favorite storybook. This gives them a deeper understanding of the narrative structure and character motivations found in familiar stories.
5. Dramatic play allows you to support your kids and encourage their ideas
Like we said above, kids process their inner thoughts and emotions externally through dramatic play. That means you can learn a lot about what makes your kids happy, scared or frustrated just through observing their pretend play.
The next time you see your kids acting as pirates, firefighters or chefs, pay attention. This is your chance to foster ideas by asking open-ended questions or to help your kids work through difficult emotions, Harvey says.
How can you encourage dramatic play?
Now you know dramatic play is important, but how can you incorporate it into your kids’ schedule? The answer is easier than you might think. Kids naturally gravitate toward dramatic play, so they only need a little encouragement from you before they’ll be off and running.
Start a dress-up box filled with scarves, hats and other props that children can use as costumes, Harvey suggests. These don’t have to be full-blown Halloween costumes – keep it simple to let them use their imaginations! If you have the space, you should also try to make a designated area for dramatic play, Jones recommends. Fill this space with props like paper and pencils, blankets, cardboard boxes and other items that children can put to use in unstructured pretend play.
And don’t forget to build free time into your kids’ day! They can’t initiate dramatic play if their schedules are filled to the brim with other activities.
Ready, set, PLAY!
Now that you know what dramatic play is and why it matters, you have everything you need to encourage this important type of play in your kids’ lives.
If you love supporting your kids in their dramatic play adventures, you might be destined to help other kids in a career as a teacher! Find out why you should consider becoming a teacher today!