Dramatic play is a form of symbolic play where children make-believe to be other characters. They imitate the words and actions they have observed from those characters, often by wearing items that symbolize their clothes or accessories.
Dramatic play can be either structured (e.g., school play with scripts) or unstructured (e.g., free-play). Role-plays and puppetry are types of dramatic or ‘pretend play’ that young children enjoy immensely.
Although children enjoy dramatic play, there are many benefitsto their social, emotional, and cognitive development.
Not only does it allow children to exercise their creativity, but it is also a way for them to make sense of their world and express their emotions in a safe context.
When playing with others, it also helps children develop social skills and self-regulation because they will often need to negotiate actions and roles with others.
Dramatic play often involves talking with playmates and exchanging verbal commands, which improves language skills and helps children build social confidence.
Dramatic Play Examples
- Children playing house in a kindergarten with a toy kitchen.
- Two kids wearing astronaut helmets and pretending to blast-off into space.
- Using a mock fruit stand to shop for fruit from a vendor and using fake money to pay.
- Playing with a small plastic tea-set with friends all seated around a table.
- Boys chasing each other around the room as cops and robbers.
- Children using hand puppets to talk to each other and share candy.
- Girls or boys using a toy brush and hairdryer to style each other’s hair in a pretend hair salon.
- Kids dressed-up in their favorite superhero costumes pretending to battle villains.
- Wearing a bee hat and buzzing around the room.
- A girl using a toy stethoscope to check the breathing of her friend’s doll.
Dramatic Play Benefits
Dramatic play often involves negotiating actions and roles with playmates and resolving disputes. Developing these skills may also improve a child’s self-regulation and inhibitory control.
To test this hypothesis, Khomais et al. (2019) examined the relation between dramatic play at home and strength of self-regulation.
The participants were 60 public school preschoolers in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. Mothers were asked to observe their child at home for one week and then respond to a questionnaire about their child’s dramatic play. The questionnaire consisted of six subscales, including use of Symbolic Actions and Tools, and Interaction with Others.
Self-regulation was assessed using a known method that asks children to touch the opposite body part of what the instructions state. So, when the experimenter says “touch your head,” the child should touch their toes instead.
“The results showed that the only dimension that could significantly predict self-regulation score is “interaction with others”, while other dimensions were not statistically significant predictors” (p. 106).
2. Seeing Things from Other Points of View
Because dramatic play often involves children interacting with other children and pretending to be other characters, it can improve their perspective-taking. When acting like another character, the child will naturally start to see things from their point of view.
This can be applied in a classroom setting to help children understand the importance of various social issues, or environmentalism.
For example, a third-grade teacher may be teaching a unit on animal habitats and creates a play that includes: a mother tiger, two cubs, a small group of tourists, tour guide, hotel owner, and poacher.
In the first scene, the tourists and guide are taking photos of a mother tiger and her cubs. They are having a great time and then return to the hotel, where they pay for their room, have dinner, and pay for their dinner. The hotel owner is pleased to accept the business.
In the next scene, the poacher kidnaps the tiger family and ships them off to different zoos. Shortly afterwards the tourists arrive again only to find the tigers all gone. They express their disappointment, check-out of the hotel and return to their homes.
The students run the play for a week, each time taking turns playing different roles. The next week, the teacher holds a class discussion wear students take turns wearing the hat for each role and talking about what happened from that character’s point of view.
3. Improving Executive Functions
Executive function can be defined as “cognitive processes that are required for the conscious, top-down control of action, thought, and emotions, and that are associated with neural systems involving the prefrontal cortex” (Müller &Liben, 2015, p. 271).
Since dramatic play involves cognitive processes such as inhibitory control and self-regulation, it seems logical to conclude that it would improve overall executive functions (EF).
Veraksa et al. (2019) tested the hypothesis that dramatic play improves EF. Eighty children 5-6 years old played either a hero, a sage, a villain, or no character (control condition).
Boys played Batman while girls played a princess heroine. The sage was represented by a sorcerer or sorceress. The kids wore costumes and accessories to help them become more fully involved in the character.
Using an accepted measure of EF, the results revealed“…children in the Sage and Control conditions showed significantly improved performance on [EF] tasks. Children who were asked to play protagonists and villains did not show any significant improvements in [EF]” (p. 12).
The authors suggest that playing Batman or a princess was a very strong emotional experience for the kids and therefore weakened their EF. Whereas the sage character was all about being wise and therefore improved EF.
As many scholars have stated (Vygotsky, 2004) imaginary play informs the child about what is appropriate in real-life situations.
“This ability to transfer skills from the imaginary to the real world is supported by research….contributes to the development of an understanding of the social relations, thinking and emotional states of other people …” (Veraksa et al., 2019, p. 3).
This is one reason teachers like to use plays and role-plays in their classrooms. Kids learn better through play than trying to sit still long enough for their teacher to explain something.
In addition to teaching kids about how to handle peer pressure or develop healthy habits, dramatic play can also teach children about the importance of wearing seatbelts.
The play Crash depicts a scenario of two families taking a quick drive to the market. One family buckles-up while the other family does not.
Not long afterwards, the two cars crash. One family is seriously hurt and needs to go to the emergency room. The family that wore seatbelts are all okay.
When the play is finished, the teacher guides a class discussion on the importance of wearing seatbelts. Students will then take the lesson learned in dramatic play and apply it to their real lives.
Gender Differences in Dramatic Play
A lot of research has found substantial gender differences in the play of boys and girls (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998). Boys prefer large spaces and rough-and-tumble play, while girls prefer cooperative play and toys that involve fine-motor skills.
But, are there gender differences in preferred play companions in dramatic play?
Carlson and Taylor (2005) studied 77 boys and 75 girls ages 4 and 5 years old. The children were observed and recorded during two 45-minute play sessions. After each session the children were asked about what they were doing during the play-time, if they had imaginary friends or enjoyed impersonating others.
The results were quite interesting. As the researchers explain, “…girls were more likely than boys to have imaginary companions, whereas boys were more likely than girls to impersonate characters. Furthermore, there was a significant sex difference in the form of imaginary companions, in which girls’ companions were more often invisible and boys’ were more often based on toys” (p. 111).
Dramatic play serves many functions in the child’s development. It helps them make sense of the world in which they live and enhances their social and emotional development.
Children love to act-out roles they see in their everyday lives. This can be in the form of pretending to cook dinner, drive a car, or pretend to be superheroes with super powers.
Teachers often use dramatic play to help children develop good habits and learn how to handle certain social situations. It is sometimes easier for children to learn a valuable lesson while participating in dramatic play rather than listening to an adult.
Carlson, S. M., & Taylor, M. (2005). Imaginary companions and impersonated characters: Sex differences in children’s fantasyplay. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 51, 93-118. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/mpq.2005.0003
Khomais, S., Al-Khalidi, N., & Alotaibi, D. (2019). Dramatic Play in Relation to Self-Regulation in Preschool Age. Contemporary Issues in Education Research, 12(4), 103-112.
Pellegrini, A. D., & Smith, P. K. (1998). Physical activity play: The nature and
function of a neglected aspect of play. Child Development, 69, 577–610.
Müller, U., &Liben, L. S. (2015). The development of Executive Function. In R. M. Lerner, L. S. Liben, U. Mueller, R. M. Lerner, L. S. Liben& U. Mueller (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, Cognitive Processes (pp. 571-613). Somerset, England: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
Veraksa, A., Gavrilova, M., Bukhalenkova, D., Almazova, O., Veraksa, N., & Colliver, Y. (2019). Does Batman ™ affect EF because he is benevolent or skillful? The effect of different pretend roles on preschoolers’ executive functions. Early Child Development and Care, 191(2). 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2019.1658091
Vygotsky, L. S.(1967).Play and Its Role in the Mental Development of the Child.Soviet Psychology,5(3),6-18. https://doi.org/0.2753/RPO1061-040505036 Vygotsky, L. S. (2004). Imagination and creativity in childhood. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 42(1), 7-97.