The Dramatic Play Center in Child Care

Child Care October 13, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

Pretend grocery store

Dramatic Play Supports Children's Development

Engaging in dramatic play enhances young children’s development. Pretending builds social skills, makes children more aware of their own emotions, and encourages shared language and problem solving. As children play and interact in the dramatic play center in an early childhood program, they practice skills in the following areas:

  • Social/emotional: negotiating different roles and themes, cooperating to keep the play happening, acting out roles and situations
  • Physical: using large and small muscles to put on costumes and manipulate props, practicing eye-hand coordination
  • Cognitive: thinking of and acting out a story, organizing and expressing ideas, paying attention to how other people see the world, finding creative solutions to challenges
  • Language: asking and answering questions, using language related to a role they are playing (e.g., “May I take your order?”), early literacy and writing skills

What Teachers Should Know about Dramatic Play

Dramatic play is most effective as a child-centered play activity, where the children are in charge of the story and decide independently how to act it out. To be successful at dramatic play, children use a variety of different skills that become better with time and practice. Teachers can help children use all of the following skills during dramatic play: 

  • Role play: pretending to be someone else
  • Use of props: using objects to expand and enhance pretend play
  • Make-believe: copying the actions of persons from various settings (e.g., restaurant server)
  • In-depth play: spending an extended amount of time playing out a theme or idea in dramatic play
  • Interaction: playing cooperatively with others and exchanging ideas about roles, setting, and other details
  • Verbal communication: using language skills to act out roles and negotiate play details

The Teacher's Role

Children often need adult help to engage in effective dramatic play, especially when they are younger. Child care providers should consider the following ways to help children engage in more complex and extended dramatic play:

  • Model pretend play: Use books, songs, or stories to engage children in using their imagination and acting. Take children on an adventure where they climb a tree, swing on a vine, or crawl through a cave. Have the children contribute to the "adventure" by suggesting what happens next.
  • Introduce the area: Especially if a dramatic play theme is new to the children, spend some time in a large group talking about the theme and discussing what children know about it. Read books about the theme to familiarize children, and leave those books in the dramatic play area to give children ideas.
  • Observe children's play: Pay attention to who is playing, the language being used, and the roles they are acting out. If play seems to be going smoothly, use this time to notice and document children's physical, cognitive, language, and social-emotional skills. Dramatic play can be a great opportunity to observe children in child-led activity. Observing may also give you new ideas for props and dramatic play themes that interest the children.
  • Participate as a supporting character: If play is "stuck" or children don't seem to know what to do next, consider entering their play as a supporting character to give them ideas. If the area is a restaurant, you could sit down at a table and say, "I'm hungry. Will someone please take my order?"
  • Help children enter play: If a child wants to join the play but doesn't know how to get started, help that child find a way to enter the play. Give the child a new prop to bring in, or suggest a new role that could enhance the play scenario.

For more specific tips on setting up a dramatic play center in your early childhood program, see Planning a Successful Dramatic Play Center in Child Care.

For More Information

To learn more about dramatic play and other learning areas, take a look at the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles:

Photo by Ermalfaro / CC BY https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en