Role Play

Role play

When a child engages in make-believe and pretend play, he takes on a role of someone else, imitating actions and speech from earlier observed situations and incorporating them into his play. When other children join in the play, it is called sociodramatic play as they interact socially in their imaginative play.1

Role play is based on first-hand experience and allows children to practice what happens in real life. They act in an “as if” state in their role play, “as if” it were real. This allows them to put themselves into situations that cannot actually be reproduced letting them explore the feelings and actions of others.2

Sara Smilansky identified six criteria of dramatic play that involve role play. The first four criteria can be played by a single child, while the last two involve interaction with others:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Persistence in role play - The pretend play episode lasts for at least 10 minutes.
  5. Interaction - At least two players interact within the context of a play episode.
  6. Verbal communication - There is some verbal interaction with others related to the play episode.3

Role play encourages children to explore imagination, think in the abstract, problem solve, and build social and language skills. Children also discover leadership skills and acquire confidence and a sense of self through role playing. Scientists theorize that role play actually improves children’s intelligence, because it engages emotion, cognition, language and sensory motor skills creating more synaptic connections between parts of the brain.4

Imitative role play helps the child understand grownups and what they do, allowing them to acquire important life skills they will use as they get older. Playing dress up with costumes and props transports children easily into the roles of others, whether real or imaginary. Acting out real-life situations like playing school or doctor helps them learn about their world and how to act appropriately in different situations. Reenacting stories helps children appreciate other’s perspectives and feelings, and repeating dialog helps them build vocabulary and language skills.5

Sigmund Freud suggested fantasy role playing was a way to gain access into a child’s psyche, showing his “inner-self” in play as a mirror to his subconscious. The child constructs a role by projecting imaginative and emotional elements into his play that can be used as a diagnostic and therapeutic tool. Role playing helps the child make sense of ideas and concepts, unifying experiences, knowledge, and understanding. It places the child’s experiences into a context which can be interpreted through reflection and processing new information prepares him for unknown situations.6

Many playground designers are now creating theme playgrounds that promote role 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.7 There are also new playgrounds designed to look like natural wood and rocks that offer great settings for imaginative role play with climbing structures and overhead ladders.8 Children can role play climbing a rock wall to save the princess, and any row of bars on the playground equipment easily becomes a jail for the villain.9

  • 1. Frost, Joe L. Play and Playscapes. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers Inc., 1992. p. 81.
  • 2. Moyles, Janet R., editor. The Excellence of Play. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press. 1994. p. 94.
  • 3. Op. cit., Frost.
  • 4. Op. cit., Frost.
  • 5. “Pretend Play: the Magical Benefits of Role Play.” OneStepAhead. < > 26 Aug. 2010.
  • 6. Op. cit., Moyles, pp. 90-92.
  • 7. “Themes.” Landscape Structures. < > 20 Aug 2010.
  • 8. “Outdoor Learning Environments. Outdoor Classrooms, Natural Playgrounds and Play Spaces.” Progressive Design Playgrounds. < > 25 Aug. 2010.
  • 9. Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, and Stuart Reifel. Play and Child Development. Upper Saddle Valley, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001. p. 126.