Theme Play

Theme Play

Theme play is a form of symbolic play. Using a particular theme, children pretend to take on roles of others they have observed from earlier situations, imitating their actions and speech.1 The theme might be a doctor’s office where the children imitate the roles of the doctor and the nurse. Children like to play school, pretend they work in a store, and imagine they are cowboys.

Young children pretend in order to comprehend real-life situations. They learn about themselves and the world around them through pretend play, and role playing gives them a safe way to explore new ideas and feelings and work out confusing or scary new experiences. Dramatic play with others provides cognitive and social benefits as it expands children’s language, creativity, and thinking strategies as well enhancing their social skills of self-regulation, negotiation, and consideration of others’ perspectives. Their ability to concentrate for long periods of time has been found to be greatly enhanced as well if they spend more time in imaginative play that requires them to maintain roles while playing.2

Using theme ideas complete with dress-up costumes and props adds to their learning. They assign roles to themselves and others involving several sequenced steps often with a predetermined plan, like pretending to be at the doctor’s office or having a tea party.3

Parents, day care centers, and schools can enhance the child’s ability to play make-believe by providing loose parts that have more than one purpose, such as building blocks, boxes, and nonrealistic materials that can be imagined symbolically as other objects. Costumes, props, and themed settings, such as play grocery stores or doll houses, also allow for pretend play.4

Theme prop boxes for dramatic play will encourage interactive play in young children. The result is an entertaining and educational experience where children learn to think creatively and imitate real-life situations. Prop boxes can be specific to one theme to emphasize a particular situation or they could contain items from an endless list of familiar situations, such as the post office, the kitchen, a construction site, camping, and the beach. Character costumes, uniforms, grown up clothes, and animal costumes, together with props, such as swords, belts, purses, shoes, and hats, all provide a range of possibilities for make-believe activities. Rotating the articles found in the theme prop boxes allows for a greater variety in their play as well as keeping the children’s interest.5

Many playground equipment manufacturers offer themed equipment in their catalogs to encourage playground designers to create theme playgrounds that promote 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.6

Incorporating a theme into a park playground can provide uniqueness to the play area that reflects the community. Historical or geographical elements blended into the design can give the playground a personalized identity that encourages greater participation.7

Custom-built themed playgrounds can be designed and then fabricated with a combination of materials that can include concrete, GFRC (glass fiber reinforced concrete), steel, sculpting epoxy, composite wood, and various plastics. The original designs of a custom-built playground can reflect the vision of the designer both whimsically or realistically. Natural-looking wood and sculpted rocks can be fabricated with durable materials to allow for years of play.8

  • 1. Frost, Joe L. Play and Playscapes. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers Inc., 1992. p. 81.
  • 2. “The Importance of Pretend Play in Child Development.” Bright Horizons. < > 10 April 2017.
  • 3. 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. 24.
  • 4. Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey. “Symbolic Thought: Play, Language, and Literacy in the Preschool Years” Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective, 3rd ed., Prentice Hall. 12 April 2017.
  • 5. “The Prop Box: Setting the Stage for Meaningful Play.” Education World. < > 10 April 2017.
  • 6. “Playground Themes.” Landscape Structures. < > 10 April 2017.
  • 7. Stoddard, Curtis. “Themed playgrounds set neighborhoods apart.” Parks & Recreation. Apr. 2008. p. 54.
  • 8. “Design Process.” Cre8Play. < > 12 April 2017.