The Flow of Dramatic Play on the Playground

Dramatic play can be fostered or hindered by the composition and arrangement of components on the playground. Appropriately selected manufactured play equipment in the right density and arrangement, along with natural environmental elements, can positively influence the flow of children’s dramatic play. Loose parts promote the most dramatic play, as children can manipulate the parts themselves during play (Frost, 1992).

Children need a great variety of play equipment that suggests either movement or stillness during dramatic play. Components such as slides, fire poles, climbers, clatter bridges, overhead ladders and rings, and spring rockers and riders all promote movement during dramatic play. Equipment such as platforms and decks, play houses, roofs, tunnels, talk tubes, bubble and mirrored panels, and most pieces that form encapsulated spaces encourage stillness during dramatic play (Frost, 1992; Fedorczak, 2001). Panels located under decks and platforms with window and door cutouts create more places for children to engage in dramatic play.

Environments that include man-made loose parts and natural materials such as sand or dirt, leaves, flowers, branches, and water also encourage dramatic play. Loose parts and natural materials give children more abundant choices when it comes to materials for dramatic play (Frost, 1992). They often carry natural materials and other loose parts with them onto play structures in order to initiate or maintain dramatic play episodes. Loose parts have been found to be `integral to children’s dramatic play.

Certain types of components actually discourage dramatic play all together. Swings have been found to promote parallel but not dramatic play. Activity panels do not seem to promote any kind of play except for exploratory/functional, during which children spin the elements on the panel or use them as climbing structures.

The closeness of play components can help the flow of dramatic play, while distance can hinder it:

The close proximity of these structures and parts allowed a smooth, natural integration with play theme, generating wider involvement and creativity in language, purpose, thought, and action. Although dramatic play can and does take place at one point or another on almost every structure on the playground, it is more likely to be fostered by certain equipment and this equipment should be zoned into a relatively compact but functional area. (Frost, 1992, p. 147)

One of the reasons that the proximity of play structures is important to dramatic play is that “dramatic play frequently has a mushrooming effect” (Frost, 1992, p. 147). As children join the dramatic play scenario, they entice other children to join, and the play spills over from one component to another.

Unique Play Features

Determining where children will play and how they will play is not an exact science. Some designers have suggested the development of “magical playscapes” (Talbot & Frost, 1990), while others have emphasized nature and gardens (Mason, 1982). Still others suggest community involvement as the key element in designing play grounds (Hewes & Beckwith, 1975). One area that has been recently explored is the appeal of unique features of playgrounds for children’s play (Armitage, 2001; Hartle, 1996; Opie, 1993). In her seminal work on children’s play, The People of the Playground, Iona Opie (1993) described the changes in play over time on the playground. She illustrated the ebb and flow of games and the somewhat arbitrary nature of children’s selection of play sites for their activities. Sports tended to dominate the open courts, while games like marbles and pretend play would take place in sheltered areas. Children form a sense of place identity through affective experiences with environments (Proshansky & Fabian, 1987). The unique features of a playground become sources for the sense of place identity as children use these features as home bases for their play.

The selection of unique features for children’s play depends on the imaginations of the children on the playground. Artimage (2001) found that children would select features like gates and fences for their dramatic games. These unique features were abstract enough to allow children to adapt them to their games, while at the same time they suggested certain uses as children utilized fences for jails and an old furnace door as the doorway to the witch’s house.

Hartle (1996) also found that children used unique features of the playground to develop their high-level pretend play activities. She called these unique features “home bases” because children would play around the bases, venture out, and eventually return to the home base. Bases were agreed upon by the children and “were given agreed upon names such as ‘our house’” (77). In Hartle's study, cement stoops, doorways, and climbers served as home bases for the children’s dramatic play.

The inclusion of unique features on playgrounds has generally been limited to the inclusion of activity panels. Activity panels, however, are rarely used by children in their play activities (Ihn, 1999). Designers looking to include unique features need to consider how grates, doorways and fences appeal to children as bases around which they organize their play. Featureless and cookie cutter play spaces can create a sense of placelessness because children may not be able to form affective relationships with the play spaces. The inclusion of unique features on the play structure can go a long way toward creating a sense of place and promoting dramatic play on the playground.

Conclusion

Playgrounds and playground equipment continues to change and evolve. The expense of play equipment and the relative permanence of today’s advanced materials require that playground equipment designers take into consideration the extended play value of the equipment. Designers who look at playground equipment through children’s eyes will see that the elements described above should be taken into consideration when designing playgrounds. Playground equipment should have a mixture of abstract and realistic play events, along with components and loose parts that encourage dramatic play. Modular playground equipment should also provide for interesting play spaces under equipment as well as on top, and the flow of dramatic play should be taken into account when designing play environments. Finally, playgrounds should include unique features around which children can base their play. When all of these factors are taken into consideration, outdoor play environments that encourage and support dramatic play can be created. Promoting dramatic play in outdoor environments will have lasting positive effects on children’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development.

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Pei-San Brown, John Sutterby, and Candra Thornton are from the Children’s Institute for Learning & Development (CHILD). This article reprinted by permission from IPEMA.