Why Is Dramatic Play Important?

Research suggests that engaging in dramatic play can have beneficial effects on children’s cognitive development, learning, peer relationships, and emotional well-being (Ellis, 1973; Fisher, 1992; Landreth, 1991; Piaget, 1962; Stambak & Sinclair, 1993; Smilansky, 1968).

Cognitive Development

Researchers have concluded that children who actively participate in dramatic play during preschool and early elementary years are advanced in intellectual development, score higher on tests of imagination and creativity, and have an enhanced ability to think inventively (Freyberg, 1973; Pepler & Ross, 1981). According to Piaget (1962), play is vital to cognitive development. However, he explains that children are not acquiring new skills during their dramatic play episodes; instead, they are practicing skills they have recently acquired in non-play situations. Without this practice in play contexts, Piaget explains, their skills would be quickly lost. Play allows children to assimilate information they are gathering from their environment into their minds and helps them make sense of it. Through play they are able to find ways to “own” their knowledge.

Dramatic play can also be viewed from a “preparation for life” perspective. Jones and Reynolds (1992) explain that pretending allows children to represent real-life problems and practice solving them. They are able to question things and to learn about the world in ways that make sense to them. “Play is self-motivated practice in meaning-making; its themes are repeated over and over until the child is satisfied that she’s got this figured out” (10) (author’s emphasis). By participating in dramatic play, Jones and Reynolds (1992) argue that children are developing learning and problem-solving strategies, as well as utilizing their knowledge and skills.

Social Development

Smilansky (1968), on the other hand, investigated how dramatic play helps children develop socially. Generally, preschoolers’ play becomes more social as they get older. Smilansky (1968) found that by engaging in socio-dramatic play (dramatic play that involves more than one player), their social skills were enhanced. Participation in socio-dramatic play requires a high level of social ability, including cooperation, negotiation, sharing, problem-solving, self-regulation, and appreciation of another’s play efforts. The amount and complexity of fantasy play have been found to be predictors of social skills, popularity, and positive social activity (Connolly & Doyle, 1984). Thus, “young children who engage frequently in social fantasy play are more socially competent than those who play less frequently” (Frost, 1992, p. 34).

Through participation in socio-dramatic play, children develop skills necessary to regulate their own actions in order to keep the play going, to control themselves and their emotions, to be flexible in their responses to other players, and to transition from being an egocentric being to a social being. Frost (1992) captures the importance of dramatic play to children’s social development when he states that it is difficult to overemphasize the value this type of play.

Emotional Development

Children, due to limited vocabularies and understandings of emotions, are generally unable to verbally express their feelings. Instead, they express them through the safe outlet of play (Landreth & Hohmeyer, 1998). Children’s play is their natural form of communication. Thus, they are able to express themselves more fully through self-initiated spontaneous play than they can verbally. “For children to ‘play out’ their experiences and feelings is the most natural dynamic and self-healing process in which children can engage” (Landreth, 1991, p. 10). Dramatic play allows children the opportunity to use toys to say things they cannot verbalize, to do things they would otherwise feel uncomfortable doing, and to express feelings and emotions they might be reprimanded for expressing in other contexts.

Despite Sigmund Freud’s limited amount of work with children, he also believed in the emotional benefits of play. In 1953, he expressed his recognition that children’s occupation is play, and that they take their play seriously and expend a great amount of emotion on it. Freud proposed that play works as an emotional cathartic release, as a means of reducing stress and anxiety, and as a way to understand traumatic experiences. Once negative feelings such as fear and aggression have been expressed, children are able to move on to communicate more positive feelings such as joy and contentment in their play.

As children engage in dramatic play scenarios, they act out relationships and experience putting themselves in another person’s shoes, which leads to increased, more sophisticated understandings of others and themselves. Dramatic play contributes to children’s emotional development by helping them reach places of increased happiness, more positive self-concepts, and greater feelings of power (Frost, Wortham & Reifel, 2001).

“Children have this amazing capacity to generate ideas with their own imaginations.” (Corley Peterson Brooke in Fedorczak, 2001)

Promoting Dramatic Play in Outdoor Environments

Dramatic play on playgrounds offers important benefits for children. However, creating play spaces that promote dramatic play is a complicated process and one that has generally been ignored on public and school playgrounds. As Frost (1992) suggests, "outdoor play environments, particularly public school and city park playgrounds, are frequently barren of needed props for dramatic play—play houses, water and sand areas, wheeled vehicle areas, dress-up clothes, containers, tools, and so forth" (82). Considering the environment of the playground is important because where children play directly impacts how children will interact with each other, and their environment will affect the cognitive level and intensity of play.

Designers of play spaces and playgrounds need to consider the individual, cultural, and social needs of children and adults in order to create environments which promote dramatic play out of doors (David & Weinstein, 1987). Designers and researchers over the last three decades have sought to influence playground design and development to increase the play value of manufactured play equipment (Friedberg & Berkeley, 1970; Hewes & Beckwith, 1975; Rivkin, 1990; Thompson, 1996; Frost, Wortham & Reifel, 2001). Playgrounds continue to evolve as new materials and research is introduced. One area of playground equipment development that continues to evolve is how designers can promote dramatic play. Three areas of importance for the promotion of dramatic play are the thematic playground equipment, arrangement of space, and the creation of unique play features.