In our preschool classrooms, we set out costumes and props of all kinds to spur our students’ imaginations. We hope to get them to play out what they are thinking, what they are observing, and what they are learning. For children this is playing, and it is so much fun. But, it is actually important work for young children.
So, let’s take a look at what children gain from “playing make believe”. First of all, this kind of play builds necessary social skills. As they divvy up roles, children learn to take turns, follow directions from peers and speak up for themselves. Disagreements are mediated, compromises are made and team-work is achieved. What planned lesson could achieve all of that?
In addition, dramatic play helps to build children’s attention-span, listening skills and concentration. This occurs because, to stay in the game, children have to keep up their role, listen to each other, and stay focused.
Because they are improvising as they go along, dramatic play sparks children’s imagination and creativity. They are creating the story as they play, so the children have to think quickly to respond to the actions of their friends to keep up the fun. This kind of on the spot problem solving promotes creative “out of the box” thinking, which will be necessary in life as they are faced with challenges in school and in the work world in the future.
According to The Strong, an independent, non-profit organization who’s mission is to research and educate on the values of play, “Children playing on playgrounds learn to incorporate found objects and put them to novel uses, develop creative pretend and dramatic play scenarios, and build on the ideas of others. Inventors draw on these same skills to make imaginative and unlikely connections that lead to exciting new products or important medical and technical advances.” (www.thestrong.org/about-play)
This special kind of play also helps children learn about themselves and others. They gain empathy and the ability to take another’s perspective when they find themselves acting the part of the mother or teacher or friend in a common interaction. Sometimes children specifically set up these types of scenarios to repeat an interaction they are trying to understand. Acting it out can help them to see both sides and grow in their emotional understanding.
So, how can we, as adults, best support this important kind of play? The best way is to provide young children plenty of unscheduled time, so their minds can wander and they have time to think up scenarios to play out. They should also have plenty of open-ended materials to play with. The best “props” can be quite simple, such as a blanket, cardboard boxes, string, a feather, stones, empty cereal and pasta boxes…you name it, and they can probably come up with something to do with it!
One activity we enjoy at Peppermint Tree is first reading a story together, and then encouraging the children to “act” out the scenes from the story. We also ask them questions to get their imagination going. For example, sometimes we stop reading in the middle of a book, and say, “what do you think is going to happen next? Or, “If you were in the story…what would you do next?” These are great prompts to encourage dramatic play.
Here is one last quote, reminding us that great minds are built on creativity: “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein, Saturday Evening Post, 1929