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The Power of Play (II)

Dear Debi,
I take care of a 5-year-old who likes to build things with boxes and pretend that he is in a different place. I want to encourage his dramatic play, but how do I make sure I’m teaching him something?
Monica, Pasadena, CA
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Kids make sense of their world through play
  • Kids learn and develop skills
  • Provide time, space and materials to support all types of play
  • Play provides a way for adults to understand kids better
Expert Advice
Ann Barbour, Ph.D.
Ann Barbour, Ph.D.
Early childhood specialist
Dramatic play is pretend or make-believe play where kids use objects and roles in imaginative and realistic ways. Children’s play is their primary way of learning and making sense of the things they experience. Kids play however, changes as they grow because play also is a reflection of their thinking and their physical and social/emotional skills.

For example, solitary play – where children play alone – is typical of babies and toddlers. That kind of play evolves into parallel play – where children play beside or next to others but don’t actually play with them. Preschoolers and older children usually engage in cooperative play where they are focused on doing something together. To be successful, they have to respond appropriately to other children.

Play also changes based on children’s ways of thinking. Babies’ and toddlers’ play is mostly practice play, often where they physically do things over and over again. Preschoolers’ main form of play is dramatic play where they use objects and actions to act out something in a pretend way. School-age children often play games with rules.

Dramatic play is important because it encourages intellectual development. To be able to pretend, kids have to be able to think symbolically – to make an object symbolize or stand for something that it is not. Being able to think symbolically is the basis for most everything kids need to learn in school. It’s interesting that language and dramatic play develop together because both rely on the understanding and use of symbols. Numbers and words – both spoken and written – are symbols.

Dramatic play helps kids focus their attention and concentrate, problem-solve, develop sequential memory, learn particular skills and concepts, and of course, imagine possibilities. When kids play together in dramatic play, they have to be able to understand another person’s perspective and respond accordingly.

Kids who aren’t able to do this have trouble playing with others. Social dramatic play is a particularly important context for learning. Through this kind of play, kids learn lots of the social rules on which positive social interactions are based (listening, turn-taking, compromise, etc.).

Child Care providers can do three things to help a child engage in dramatic play. First, they should provide time and space for play. Second, they should provide a variety of props and materials, many of which should be open-ended so that kids can use them in multiple ways – the simpler, the better. Third, child care providers should watch what each child does and encourage their play as needed. Some kids won’t need anything, but you might have to adapt or add materials for others. Those who lack social experience or who have developmental delays may need help getting started and more direction.
Child Care provider Comments
Clarissa August
Clarissa August
Family child care provider for 21 years
Dramatic play helps kids develop their language skills and social skills. It allows them to experiment with different situations while developing their imaginations. It’s thought-provoking because it’s based on things they’ve seen in their neighborhoods.
Sonnia Corzo
Sonnia Corzo
Child care provider for 6 years, mother of four
I have two little girls who always play the same roles: one is the mother and the other is always the baby. They develop these roles better and better each time they play. As they get older, dramatic play becomes an expansion on what they did when they were younger. Many times they express their feelings through the play.
Family child care provider for 2 years
If you only take care of one child, I think it’s important for the provider to become the child’s play partner. This will give a child the opportunity to use their imaginations and direct the play while the provider can observe what the child is learning and experiencing in life.

Sometimes you can find out what a child is experiencing at home and it will give you a chance to begin a conversation about something that they may be curious about. You can also gauge a child’s abilities and self-perception from the way they play.

Cardboard Kitchen Featured Activity:
Cardboard Kitchen
Parallel Play Featured Video:
Parallel Play
Topic: Play & Creativity
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