By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. Dramatic play is one of the most important forms of play (Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990). Children enjoy and will do it spontaneously. It supports them in combining their ideas and thoughts to bring meaning to their world. If dramatic play is missing or not encouraged, an important piece of childhood is missing. In the 2018 revised edition of Playing and Learning in Early Childhood Education, that I co-wrote with Dr. Beverlie Dietze we quote Lev Vygotsky (2004) who suggested that dramatic play involves the creative “ability to combine elements to produce a structure, to combine the old in new ways” (p. 12).
Vygotsky suggested that “children are not reproducing events that they have seen or heard; rather, they are making creative re-workings of what they know about the world and the meaning that it has for the child” (Robertson, 2016, p. 3). There is more going on than purely play.
Watching my grandson play with the treasure box I put together for him, I see him using the small wooden scoop as a microphone. I watched him pick up at wooden disc and blow on it and pass it to his father to have a bite. At seventeen months old, he is creatively reworking his world. He is not just imitating. He is engaged in important play. The play involves pretending or using symbols to stand in for that, which is real. It is in dramatic play that he will have the opportunity to exhibit cognitive strategies such as perspective taking, joint planning, negotiation, problem solving, and goal seeking. Dramatic play is a basic element of early childhood education for a reason and if it is not being encouraged, children are missing out.
If children lack opportunities to experience such play, their long-term capacities related to metacognition, problem solving, and social cognition, as well as to academic areas such as literacy, mathematics, and science, may be diminished. These complex and multidimensional skills involving many areas of the brain are most likely to thrive in an atmosphere rich in high-quality pretend play. (Bergen 2002, p. 5)
It is worrisome to me when I see more emphasis being placed on academic preparation for younger children and dramatic play is being dismissed. It causes me concern when I visit an early learning program and see a dramatic play centre that looks like a cluttered mess of plastic food, worn out prefab costumes and shabby furniture. When it seems like little attention is paid to this learning area, opportunities for children’s learning and development are being missed. Recently, along with my friend and colleague, Cindy Green we delivered a workshop on dramatic play as part of our Back to Basics and Beyond environmental series. As part of the experience we set up a dramatic play centre that utilized loose parts (instead of plastic food), scarves and fabric (instead of costumes) and paid attention to aesthetics and space. The participants then went back to their own programs and did a makeover!
During the series each participant received laminated handouts to share with others that illustrated the importance of dramatic play and the role of the teacher. It is our hope that there will be continued attention paid to this important area of the environment and this important area of children’s development and learning.
According to Bodrova and Leong (2015) “learning to operate not with real objects but with their symbolic substitutes contributes to the development of abstract thinking and imagination” (p. 380). Paley (1986) concerned that we are moving away from supporting dramatic play encourages a return to a time when fantasy play was practised leisurely and openly. For children, “fantasy play is their ever-dependable pathway to knowledge and certainty” (p. viii). Bodrova and Leong (2015) remind us that when Vygotsky said these words that have become so well-known he was referring to dramatic play.
In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form; in play it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behavior (Vygotsky, 1967, p. 16).
So let’s bring on the dramatic play and bring on the learning!