Dramatic play is a form of symbolic play where a child pretends to take on a role of someone else, imitating actions and speech from earlier observed situations. When another person becomes involved in the play, it is called sociodramatic play. The elements of reality and make-believe are involved as children imitate real-life people and situations they have experienced, but because they are unable to imitate exactly what they have observed, make-believe enters their play.1
Criteria of Dramatic Play
In the Effects of Sociodramatic Play on Disadvantaged Preschool Children, Sara Smilansky identified six criteria of dramatic play that evolve into sociodramatic play. The first four criteria can be played by a single child, while the last two involve interaction with others:
- Imitative role play - The child undertakes a make-believe role and expresses it in an imitative action and/or verbalization. Example: “I am the teacher, and you are my students.”
- Make-believe with regard to objects - Actions or verbal descriptions and/or materials or toys that are not replicas of the object itself are substituted for real objects. Example: “I am riding my pony” when the child is sitting on a barrel.
- Verbal make-believe with regard to actions and situations - Verbal dialog takes the place of body movements. Example: “Let’s pretend I cooked the dinner, and now I am setting the table” when only the last activity is actually imitated.
- Persistence in role play - The pretend play episode lasts for at least 10 minutes.
- Interaction - At least two players interact within the context of a play episode.
- Verbal communication - There is some verbal interaction with others related to the play episode.2
Encouraging Dramatic Play
Children’s ability to engage in dramatic play is encouraged with toys that have more than one purpose, such as building blocks, containers, tools, costumes, and other props. Costumes and themed settings, such as playhouses and play grocery stores, set the stage for dramatic play.3
Outdoor play on playgrounds allows for fuller expression and freedom through active movement and loud talk. The outdoor environment offers greater availability of low-structured, low-realistic, natural materials, and spaciousness that encourage dramatic play. When playing outdoors, boys engage in more dramatic play and girls are more assertive.4
New innovative playgrounds are being designed that greatly encourage dramatic play. Old West towns, forts, castles, pirate ships, rescue fire trucks, trains, and space ships are some of the themes built into today’s playgrounds.5 Slides, fire poles, overhead ladders, climbers, bridges, and spring rockers all promote dramatic play as well as decks, roofs, tunnels, talk tubes, and bubble panels. Platforms with window and door cutouts create places for children to engage in dramatic play.6
Why Dramatic Play Matters
With experience and exposure to play with different children, the child’s dramatic play becomes more varied with new ideas and interpretations.7 Sociodramatic play aids the development of social skills, creativity, and intellectual growth. Children learn skills in negotiation, listening, sharing, taking turns, and respecting others’ feelings, thoughts, ideas, and physical space through sociodramatic play.8
Children are often unable to verbally express their feelings, due to their limited vocabularies and understanding of emotions. However, dramatic play allows them the opportunity to verbalize, through toys and play, feelings that they might not be able to express in other contexts. Children’s play is their natural form of communication. Sigmund Freud proposed that play for a child works as an emotional cathartic release, a means of reducing anxiety and stress, and a way to understand traumatic experiences. He suggested that once negative feelings, such as fear and aggression, have been expressed, that children are then able to move on to more positive feelings, such as joy and contentment in their play.9
- 1. Frost, Joe L. Play and Playscapes. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers Inc., 1992. p. 81.
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey. “Symbolic Thought: Play, Language, and Literacy in the Preschool Years” Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective, 3rd ed., Prentice Hall. < http://wps.prenhall.com/chet_trawick-smith_early_3/5/1495/382746.cw/index.html > 20 Aug 2010.
- 4. Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, and Stuart Reifel. Play and Child Development. Upper Saddle Valley, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001. pp. 430-431.
- 5. “Themes.” Landscape Structures. < http://www.playlsi.com/Explore-Products/Park-Themes/Pages/Park-Themes.aspx > 20 Aug 2010.
- 6. Brown, Pei-San, John Sutterby, and Candra Thornton. “Dramatic Play in Outdoor Play Environments.” PTO Today. < http://www.ptotoday.com/play3.html > 23 Aug 2010.
- 7. Op. cit., Frost, Wortham, Reifel. p.186.
- 8. Frost, Joe L., Pei-San Brown, John A. Sutterby, Candra D. Thornton, The Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International, 2004. p. 23.
- 9. Op. cit., Brown, Sutterby, Thornton.