Picture the scene: an ‘actor’ is on the stage wearing an amazing costume, a ‘teacher’ is reading to a class of teddy bears, a ‘chef’ is inventing a new recipe, mainly consisting of mud, grass and stones, a ‘mummy’ wearing a hat, a too-long dress and several necklaces pushes a pram filled with toys, while some ‘firefighters’ desperately try to extinguish a fire just outside… A fairly typical scene, if you are a preschool or nursery practitioner.
Children regularly recreate events and situations that they have experienced, often taking on character roles and imitating grownups. This social and dramatic play, or socio-dramatic play as it can be referred to, usually happens within the free-play element of a session and tends to be child led. We see it emerging when children begin to engage socially with each other at around 2 ½ to 3 years old, however, it is not until around 4 or 5 years old that their play becomes more involved with complicated themes. It is a social and cooperative enterprise which often develops through collaboration with others and is linked to the children’s interests and real-life experiences.
Although children regularly initiate this play, we can still influence, plan and very occasionally direct this play when we feel it is appropriate to do so. We must be careful, to use Julie Fisher’s phrase, to ensure we are ‘interacting not interfering’ (2016). Many a time I have attempted to join a group of children in their play, only to find that the play stops and I am interfering! Therefore, we need to observe children’s play, assess whether to continue observing or whether to intervene sensitively. For example, sometimes children need support to fully understand a role that they are taking on and you may need to participate in their play to role-model how to be a ‘baker’ or a ‘police officer’ etc.
Children need time, space and access to resources to develop their play themes. However, we do not need to resource every element of their play. In doing so we would remove the opportunity for them to draw upon their imagination and engage in symbolic play, pretending an object is something else. The best resources that we can provide children are real objects, as opposed to pretend ones or open-ended resources which can be used in a variety of ways. Think about it; a real pumpkin is immensely different to a plastic one, and pieces of material can be transformed into a tent one day and a cape the next. We may like to add a few resources and props to assist with specific roles, e.g. a doctor’s kit or a label saying ‘campsite’… Remember that the more you are able to involve children in this process the more successful it will be; if the idea is theirs, and they talk about the objects and props needed, how they can be used and help to mark-make and create signs and symbols to enhance the area, then the more engaged the children will be in their play.
We can widen children’s experiences by offering them opportunities to find out more about a role once they have shown an interest. For example, if a child has just visited a dentist and begins to play at dentists with their friend, we could arrange to visit a dentist’s surgery, or invite a dentist to visit us so that we can find out more about this role. Perhaps we can involve the children in creating a dental surgery in an area of our room.
Sometimes we can just stand back and watch the drama unfold. It might be in a specific area (e.g. role-play area/construction area) or it could develop in any space that the children occupy, inside or outside. It is important to value this play wherever it appears, as it is through playing in this way that children are learning how to act and behave in their world.
Social and dramatic play:
· develops children’s self-regulation skills
· enhances and practises their language and communication skills
· provides an opportunity to interact socially
· helps children to understand the world and how it works
· develops children’s understanding of rules and social etiquette
· allows children to be creative and use their imagination
· provides opportunities to use literacy skills
· practises using long and short-term memory
· develops ability to problem solve and think critically.
If children are already engaging in social and dramatic play successfully, we may not need to intervene at all, however, through observing children we may find that we need to enrich their play in some way by introducing new props, role-modelling, extend the narrative, share vocabulary relating to the play theme or offer ideas to extend their play.
Is the stage set for social and dramatic play in your setting?
About the author
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.
Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.