The Value of Dramatic Play
Why Dramatic Play? Because dramatic play aims at “enlightenment through direct intuition” (our thanks, as always, to Webster’s Collegiate). We adults tend to limit our dramatic play with children to letting them ride us like horses or having us bark like a dog because it’s easy enough to do, and it doesn’t have to last long enough to interfere with truly adult pursuits like reading the Sunday paper.
But a nanny needs to be more involved, more creative. Actually, as Becky points out, letting children take the lead reduces the adult’s need to be smart, letting children take on leadership – and yes, even authority – roles.
We asked Becky to tell us exactly what she means by “dramatic play.” “There’s no secret,” she says. “Just join in enthusiastically.” Remember: if you do something foolish, you have probably done what a child might do.
Is applause for dramatic play the sound of one hand clapping?
Why do I find dramatic play so important to a child’s learning experience? Examining the hows and whys of this activity, as much second nature to me as it is to children, is difficult. To me, creativity and expression are normal responses to experience, whether real or imagined, a way to express real feelings, ideas and concepts. In order to get into a character’s shoes, to explore what he or she must feel and “try on” different ideas, is to understand them. If we as a society value such empathy, we must give children the opportunity to practice it.
I see drama as an unlimited and unrestricted form of exploration. Through imaginative play, children become someone else. This is nothing new to them: they are “becoming” themselves every day in a way that we as adults have long since outgrown. In play they create worlds and situations that they might never experience in the “real world” and replay difficult “real world” events to their own satisfaction. Pretending to be a grown-up with a job, family and interests is a way of preparing to be a grown-up.
Dramatic play encourages self-expression. Children practice both verbal and non-verbal communication (moving to music, miming, singing) through dramatic play. When we listen to children playing together, we see and hear echoes of ourselves. They are trying on the voices they hear to see how they fit.
Children engaged in dramatic play control the variables and outcomes in a way they cannot in “real life.” Not just actors, they also design sets and direct. They can reverse and adapt roles to share experiences among an entire group. In our household, we all take turns with each character. Male or female, heroine or antagonist, each role has something to teach, and each actor has something to learn.
Dramatization allows children to relive favorite books and stories, fictional or otherwise. We especially enjoy animal-related non-fiction, with the children invariably pretending to be those animals. They’ll check out how it feels to be a chipmunk curled up in its underground home or scurrying along a forest floor.
Dramatic play offers opportunities to practice problem-solving and creative resolution. Play gives us the time we need to examine a problem at our own pace. Creative solutions come by trial and error without worry for consequences along the way to the truth. Such role-playing offers children a chance to prepare for real world challenges, such as a trip to the dentist or a hospital stay. Using information and facts offered by trusted adults helps children understand what will happen and how they will want to react.
Props and costumes can make play more exciting. We keep a prop box with adult clothing, feather boas, gloves, caps, tiaras, magic wands, hats of all sorts. It keeps growing. You can find old clothes and accessories in thrift shops and garage sales. Our group has used sleeping bags as cocoons, pots as hats, tables as castle roofs, and old curtains as capes and gowns. But these props are not the essentials. It’s imagination that counts.
The simplest way to dramatic play is to let go of adult inhibitions and play along. When children say, “Let’s pretend to be…” then it’s begun. You can take the initiative by asking children “What if…?” But once you start, let the children set the pace. In the adult world they play by our rules, in their world we must follow theirs.
Let me take you into one of our dramas and how it came about, once upon a time.
The middle child, then just six, had received a remarkable-looking dragon puppet as a gift. I could see the wheels turning as he opened the package. Later that day, he and his sisters (ages three and nine) approached me with the magic words, “Let’s pretend to ….” We were off on the Adventure of the Dragon’s Lair. I was conscripted as the Dragon, using the puppet and wearing my black raincoat to complete my disguise. He took the role of Noble Knight in defense of the confident, yet overmatched, Princess Sisters.
The play ranged throughout the house. A large walk-in closet became the Dragon’s Cave. The family room was the Field of Battle and the kitchen the Town Square. The Princess Sisters lived in the glorious Castle on the Hill, actually the second-level bedrooms.
The action began with the Dragon whisking away the Princesses, even though they were clever and resourceful, to his (only marginally comfortable) cave. The Knight, learning of their plight, vowed to assist them in securing freedom.
The ladies worked on the Dragon from inside the cave while the Knight boldly engaged him from the outside. Despite the Dragon’s arsenal of fire bursts (played by red and yellow Duplo blocks) they soon overcame him. The action ended with the grateful Princesses and courteous Knight towing a much subdued Dragon to the Town Square. Great rejoicing ensued from all the townsfolk (the pet members of the family). The Dragon vowed never again to engage in harsh or violent behavior but to become a productive member of the Kingdom. The co-directors, ages 3, 6, and 9, took their well-deserved bows, and we’ve all lived creatively ever after.