Play is the work of the child

Maria Montessori once said ‘Play is the work of the child’( Montessori, M. 2016). When a pre-school child comes home at the end of the school day and you ask them ‘What did you do today’? More often than not the typical answer is ‘Nothing’. But actually this couldn’t be further from the truth, you see the child has been playing and they sure have been busy. There are many different types of play all of which have benefits for the child. Today we look at ‘Dramatic Play’ and the value it brings to ‘The Early Years Curriculum’. Dramatic play by definition is any type of play which allows the child to ‘imagine’. The child takes on a role becoming a different person, an animal or even a tree and embraces the characteristics they believe necessary for this role.
Early years educators are very aware of the importance of the period from birth to six years, a time during which children’s brains are developing rapidly. The young child absorbs knowledge from the environment in which he lives. The richer the environment the richer the connections formed for the child. Later he begins to make sense of that knowledge and this forms his ‘reality’. Play and certainly dramatic play tests that reality. Piaget believed that children developed cognitively through a process of assimilation, adaptation, and accommodation and indeed Vygotsky believed that through play the child is scaffolded by being able to test and experiment with reality. To explain this concept I often give the example of when my daughter (then 15 months old) and I were walking along a football pitch waiting for her brother to finish his training. She stopped at a bench where a lady was sitting with her little white dog. Walking directly up to the dog, she bent down and said ‘MEOW’. In this moment her previous knowledge had led her to believe that this small white animal was indeed a cat. Later I explained that it was, in fact, a dog and thus a new connection was made. Sometimes we forget that children have so much information which they need to absorb, analyse and then place within their bank of knowledge. No wonder they are so tired at the end of the day!

Vygotsky believed that in play ‘the child is always behaving beyond his age, above his usual everyday behaviour; in play, he is, as it were, a head above himself’ (Bodrova, E. 2008). In the safety of the costume/persona the child can shout, ask questions, instruct and experiment stretch the limits all within the safety of ‘play’ the child can adjust, adapt and change the game completely if it moves in a direction in which she becomes uncomfortable, he can opt out and end the play. At a later stage, he can start over with the new knowledge he has gained and will develop new skills for life. At this moment the child is in control, he can be anything he wants to be. This helps to develop real-life skills and build self-esteem.

The power of dramatic play

Whilst dramatic play affords the child much freedom, when playing in a group they are often assigned roles which have rules they need to abide by. We often find that children are much more able to wait in a ‘play’ situation for their turn than perhaps in the reality of a classroom situation. The skills learned through play will with practice transfer later to the classroom and everyday life.

Children develop leadership skills.
What happens if I shout? How far can I take the game before someone refuses to play? What did I do to make ‘Mary’ sad? How does that make me feel? Which role would I rather play? Kate allowed me to do this but Mary won’t, why is that?
All of the answers to these questions help the child to build life skills such as empathy, resilience, leadership, moral development, negotiation skills and the social and emotional skills necessary to succeed in later life including the knowledge that not everyone has the same beliefs as they do.The child gets to discover feelings, likes and dislikes.

Did I like when I wore the doctor’s costume and became the doctor? Was it better to be the patient? What did that feel like? Could I be the mum bringing the baby? Am I able to take turns and what did I learn from other people? If I want to be the doctor how can I negotiate? Crying works at home, but it doesn’t work at school, why? What else can I do?

All of these play skills are working towards the holistic development of the child and combine to develop executive functioning skills which we now know are essential to future success and mental well-being. The children also learn the obvious practical life skills such as dressing themselves and the fine motor skills through manipulating different objects in play. Language skills are acquired more easily through play. Early Years educators and indeed parents play a vital role in enhancing the benefits of dramatic play by bringing the play to a higher level. In recent years children have less time than ever to engage in uninterrupted play. In the past children would have been in mixed age groups where they played with siblings, cousins, and children in the neighbourhood. Society has changed so much now that even in the early years’ settings children are more likely to be segregated by age rather than being placed in mixed age groups for optimal development and scaffolding opportunities. When we as educators observe children we often see that they need some assistance or the environment needs to be adapted to make the play more meaningful and beneficial to the child.

Dramatic play in practice

Let me explain how this works. Children express an interest in a topic. A child might have just had an experience of being ill and going to the doctor. The teacher will chat with the children to determine what they already know (or think they know) and where the gaps in knowledge may be. He may then decide to set up an area ‘prepared environment’ in which through play the children can explore and experiment with the topic. If we remember that through play ‘the child always performs above his usual ability’, we can use this to place these opportunities within the play environment. The doctor’s surgery may include pictures with words, stethoscope, chart, waiting area, nurse, patient etc. Through play, the child refers to these items and pictures often and thus new vocabulary is acquired more readily than if it were simply repeated in circle time. The addition of paper and writing material allows the child to explore with pre-writing skills and to learn that words have meaning.

When preparing a dramatic play area costumes which can be worn by both girls and boys or squares of materials, hats, and accessories can be used. By actively listening and observing the parent/educator watches and waits as the play unfolds. Depending on the information gathered the educator may need to challenge stereotypes at a later date such as ‘girls can’t be the builder’ or ‘boys can’t be the nurse’ and work on new strategies to challenge these opinions. The play area may be adapted, with books or items added and later changed to allow the children to explore new emerging interests. The children and educator can later review the topics to determine how much the children have actually learned and where they might take their play to next.

The areas can be used to explore diversity and should cater to the needs of all of the children. Play mimics the reality of the world in which the children live and as such it may not always be fun, children can be left out, hurt either physically or emotionally and whilst this helps to build resilience, sometimes the boundaries are surpassed and as parents and educators our role is often to intervene to challenge children in their play and thus enable them to work towards a more equitable and fair society. In the words of L.R Knost, ‘It is our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless’. Now more than ever play needs to be the medium in which children are enabled to develop, grow and most importantly to just have fun. Engaging in dramatic play enhances young children’s development. It needs to form part of the Early Years Curriculum enabling children to remain curious and make sense of the world around them. If you decide to set up a dramatic play area in your home or school let us know how it works out.

Don’t forget to observe and wait, gather knowledge and adapt as necessary but most of all just have fun with your children.

References/Suggested Reading
Bodrova, E (2008) ‘Make-believe play versus academic skills: a Vygotskian approach to today’s dilemma of early childhood education’. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal Vol 16, (3).
Knost, L.R. (2013) The Gentle Parent, Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline, Little Hearts books, USA.
McLeod, S, (2015) ‘Jean Piaget’ Simply Psychology (online accessed 19/03/2018)
McLeod, S. (2014) ‘Lev Vygotsky’ Simply Psychology (online accessed 19/03/2018)
Montessori M, (2016) The Absorbent Mind Stellar Editions

About the Author

Caroline’s career began in Fund Management. Her experiences as a parent fueled a passion for the well-being of both children and their parents. In 2012 she returned to education and has since obtained a Montessori Diploma, a Major award at level 6 in Advanced Supervision in Childcare and, in 2017 Caroline graduated from NUI Galway with a level 8 first class honours degree in Early Childhood Care and Education. Her experience to date includes Montessori teaching, working with children with additional needs and management of an Early Years setting. Caroline presented her research “Exploring the use of story-sacks in promoting children’s disposition towards reading” at the Early Childhood Ireland 2018 research seminar.

Dramatic Play in The Early Years Curriculum
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One thought on “Dramatic Play in The Early Years Curriculum

  • 13th September 2018 at 21:11

    Very insightful and thoughtful piece


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