Dramatic Play

toddler dress up
Dressing up is common in dramatic play. M. Ryan

Definition: Dramatic play is a term that refers to the everyday make-believe games kids naturally enjoy. From dress up to dolls to playing superheros, dramatic play involves different types of games and activities at different ages. Depending on his age or interests, your child might incorporate elaborate props and join with friends in assuming complex roles in a story; or he might quietly imagine simple scenarios that require no dolls, toys, costumes, or other people at all.

It’s adorable to see kids playing these games, but what you're witnessing when you see your child in the midst of dramatic play isn't just something cute. Dramatic play is actually important to your child's development, supporting intellectual and verbal skills.

Imagination and Intellectual Development
During dramatic play, young children get a chance to relieve scenes from their own life – things they've witnessed or participated in. So you might see your toddler serving her "babies" lunch just like you do or twirling around the room like the princess in the movie she's just watched. This is a sign that your toddler is starting to be able to hold pictures in her head. It's the first step towards more complex play and symbolic thought, which you'll notice in activities such as:

  • Using play items to stand in for real things: Thus, a bowl becomes a hat or a stick becomes a phone.
  • Imitating others: At first, your toddler might mimic your exact actions, but as he develops more advanced thinking, he won't just reenact what he's seen; he'll create new versions of a story. So at first he may pretend he's shopping just like mommy, and later he may line up his stuffed animals and go shopping for pets.
  • Engaging in complex games with other children: Around age 3, children begin to move away from parallel play and start interacting with peers and taking part in complex games where they collaborate and have a shared perspective. This lets them practice more grown-up interactions. It's one of the ways they try to make sense of the world around them. For instance, your child might play teacher while her friends act as students. She may lead them in a favorite song, "teach" them a lesson, or declare it play time...and all the while she is improving her ability to communicate and think logically.
  • Practicing higher-level thinking: What separates dramatic play from more passive games is that your child is involved in spontaneously creating something new. It's a deceptively simple activity that requires young children to plan, organize, and problem solve.
  • Using creativity: Your child might relive the same story over and over, each time bringing something different to the scenario to make it better or different. He may also begin to try and entertain you with these games. The first time your little one rushes through the house pretending to be a train will make you laugh, so he is sure to try and do it and similar things again and again to get that same response.

Make Believe and Verbal Skills
Imaginative games help young children sharpen their verbal sills because it allows them a chance to use those skills. Compare a game in which your toddler is pretending to examine a teddy bear like a doctor. She may (perhaps with just simple words) tell the bear to open its mouth or let it know a shot is coming.

Compare that to an activity like throwing a ball or watching a video in which she doesn’t need to use words. Some of the signs of verbal skill building during dramatic play include:

  • Talking out loud: Try to sneak a look at your toddler or 2-year-old as he's playing independently. Without needing adult intervention or guidance, he may naturally engage in uninhibited storytelling or thinking out loud. Researchers call this "egocentric speech" because it's all about your child – he doesn't care what others have to say or need, he's in his own world. This allows your child to hear his own vocalization of words and play with the sounds of words on his own. This can encourage a child to experiment with words (be they real or made up) and build confidence with his own speech.
  • Talking more: There has been a surprising amount of study done on pretend play among children, and one of the things that has repeatedly been seen is that a child who starts narrating and building upon a story will talk more and more. She might just be thrilled by the sound of her own voice, or, as in the case with older children, she may get caught up in the story and continue adding on it. Children who have lots of time to practice talking in these imaginative situation may talk more in everyday conversation as well.
  • Making more and better associations among objects: As young children manipulate random plaything and organize them into a game or story line, they begin to group the objects in their head. Studies show that dramatic play seem to help children be able to create common and unusual associations between playthings. For instance, your toddler might naturally see a connection among all of those cups and spoons in a tea set, but she will also begin to see a connection between the plate in that tea set and the round flat disc that was part of a board game she pulled out during play time as well. This is the start of her being able to use common descriptive words for like objects.

What You Can Do to Encourage Dramatic Play
Dramatic play comes naturally to children, but in an age of constant stimulation, TV, electronic games, and organized activities, young children may actually have a limited amount of time to flex their imaginations. To help your child draw the benefits of imaginative game, try these quick tips:

  • Allow your toddler time and space to play independently and initiate her own dramatic games. That may mean turning off the TV, removing electronic toys from the play area, and letting your little one explore her toys without guidance or intervention.
  • Be willing to participate at least occasionally in some of his make-believe play. For instance, you might join a tea party or help him dress up like a cowboy, but only join in if you're asked.
  • Try to arrange times for your child to interact with other children. If your child is in a daycare program or has siblings, you have this one covered, but for other children, you might want to join or start a playgroup. While social interaction is not a necessary component for dramatic play, it does add an element to the play that helps build language and social skills.
  • Keep some key dramatic play props on hand. Kids don't actually need much to create imaginary worlds and elaborate storylines. My toddler is happy to turn the cups and bowls in my pantry into castles and racetracks for his cars. But he also spends long periods of time "talking" as he builds worlds with his Lego Duplo blocks, and when I'm making dinner, I pull the play kitchen into the real kitchen so he can cook alongside me. Toys like these spark creative activities and encourage imaginative play.

See Also: Parallel Play | Collaborative Play | Functional Play | Constructive Play | Dramatic Play

Also Known As: symbolic play, imaginative play, creative play

Examples: My child loves to dress up like a mommy and feed her dolls as part of dramatic play.

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