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What Is Dramatic Play?

It is widely accepted in the community surrounding young children that play is the dominant activity that leads development. Children learn best not when they are told, but when they can act upon their environments and construct knowledge for themselves. They do this best through play. A commonly held belief among those in early childhood education is that play is the most important activity of young children because it is during play that children are at their most competent. Lev Vygotsky, a leading early childhood theorist, strongly stressed this point, explaining that “in play the child is always behaving beyond his age, above his usual everyday behavior; in play he is, as it were, a head above himself” (1978, p. 74).

But there are different kinds of play, different stages of play, and different purposes underlying play. The play of preschool children is different from the play of toddlers, which is different from the play of school-age children (Jones & Reynolds, 1992). Generally, children under the age of three engage in exploratory play. Their objective is to explore the world through physical actions, to experiment with their movements and discover what they can do. They poke, dump, taste, stroke, and pull whatever they encounter in order to learn about their world. From three to seven years of age, however, children’s actions become more about “play” than exploration, and efforts to know and understand become more than sensory experiences. They require spontaneous action, action which takes the form of play (Jones & Reynolds, 1992). Children become representers of their experiences, rather than just doers of activities. The understandings that they have built through exploratory play experiences are symbolized by things, actions, plots, and behaviors in their representational play.

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In representational play, also known as dramatic play, preschoolers use speech and body language to become storytellers of pretend events. Through dramatic play, which is also commonly called pretend/fantasy play, children continue to build understandings of their world, just like toddlers and young infants do through exploratory play. In essence, it is “play for understanding” for older children. “Fantasy play is their ever dependable pathway to knowledge and certainty” (Paley, 1988, p. viii). This will be further explained in the section below on research into the connection between dramatic play and cognitive development.

Dramatic play is an imitation of reality. Children create play “themes” and act them out by participating in various roles. By doing so, they are able to imitate the physical world and human relationships through symbolic representation. Children perform with concrete objects (e.g. dolls, pots, tricycles, or sticks), which are symbols for something else children have experienced directly or indirectly (e.g., babies, cooking, cars, or swords) (Landreth, 1991). For example, children may pretend that a log is a boat, or that they are Batman and Robin fighting all the bad guys in Gotham City. Dramatic play is a time of non-literal, symbolic behavior that merges the child’s imagination with the real world, giving everything an “as if” nature.

Smilansky (1968) provides six criteria of dramatic play. The first four are behaviors in which young children may engage in alone, and the last two involve social dynamics in the play (Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990).

  • Imitative role-play: the child performs a make-believe role and acts it out through imitative bodily action and/or speech.
  • Make-believe with regard to objects: play behaviors and/or speech dialogues and/or materials or toys that are not replicas of the object itself are substituted for real objects.
  • Verbal make-believe with regard to actions and situations: verbal dialogue takes the place of body movements.
  • Persistence in role-play: the pretend play episode lasts at least 10 minutes.
  • Interaction: more than one person participates in pretend play episode.
  • Verbal communication: verbal dialogue is exchanged between the players.