During early childhood, children are beginning to establish their sense of identity and where they belong in a variety of communities. Through their play and explorations they are exposed to a variety of new ideas, differing value systems and new discoveries, how do they digest and reflect on this information? A lot of the sorting out of social understandings and experimentation is explored during dramatic play experiences.
Once we have considered why and how the children are using this style of play to explore their world, it helps us in creating a space that is both welcoming and meaningful. Let’s take a look at the types of explorations the children will be engaging in.
Younger children tend to explore the dramatic play space through a more sensory, hands-on approach as they figure out how things work and move objects around, of course some will take on adult roles as they carry a doll with them, chat on the phone or sling a handbag over their shoulder. As children grow, their social explorations become more complex as they experiment and explore a variety of adult roles. Through their play, the older children will begin to explore different identities and points of view.
Continued engagement with dramatic play encourages children to test new ideas, practice expressive and receptive language and explore concepts of diversity, respect and equity. Children will practice and develop their creative thinking abilities as they investigate and explore a range of ideas and scenarios. This style of play is a secure space for children to prepare for the big changes in their lives, such as moving house or the arrival of a new sibling. This is also a safe environment for children to investigate more challenging emotions, such as anger, frustration and disappointment.
When creating dramatic play spaces, we often begin with a home setting, filled with tables, chairs, shelves, play stoves and fridges, cooking utensils, dress ups, dolls etc. This is a great place to start, as it adds a sense of home and familiarity into the learning environment, but there are still things we can do to ensure that the play is child directed and open to a variety of learning opportunities.
Firstly, create a space that you would find welcoming and warm. Keep in mind that if you don’t find the play space inviting, it is a little unreasonable to expect the children too. Getting down to the children’s level is a great way to really appreciate how the logistics of the space works, is there enough room to negotiate around other children and furniture.
Don’t forget that this type of play space works wonderfully in both the indoor and outdoor environments. We often focus on our indoor space, but outdoors is a great place for children to be a little bit louder and to include natural elements such as sand, water and leaves into their play. I find it incredibly valuable to include dramatic play in both the indoors and outdoors as it provides real choices for children and inspires different styles of play.
When possible, arrange your space so that it caters for both busy groups and solitary explorations at the same time. This can include having a large open kitchen area with dolls and cots off to the side. This can be a challenge in smaller environments, either indoor or outdoor, if you can’t create a space that caters to all types of play, consider having several dramatic play spaces available. The main dramatic space can cater to the busy group, while a smaller space can be created for solitary and small group explorations.
When beginning with a home setting, keep an area close by that includes just a table and open shelves to allow children to direct their own play. On the shelves include a variety of loose parts, such as corks, buttons, pieces of paper, computer keyboards, medical equipment, cash registers, cardboard boxes and wooden blocks. This open space is where children can move out of their home setting as they go off to the shops, office, park, hospital or wherever their play takes them.
How children access this free space, allows you to observe where the children’s interests are in dramatic explorations and ensures that you are catering to those interests. Again, if you don’t have the space to do this, try to allow children to move resources out of the home setting to other areas. This works just as well and will provide you with valuable insights to the direction of their play.
Once you have arranged the furniture, consider the resources that will be provided. The quantity of resources that are available will impact on the play, so try to balance between enough resources to cater to the group, but don’t over clutter the space. This can be a fine line to balance, but keep in mind that an over cluttered space can interfere with the quality of play, whereas an under resourced space may not engage the children. Don’t be too concerned if you don’t have exact resources to suit the play, children will use their imaginations to create from what they find. We have all seen a wooden block become a telephone or car. Remember, educator imagination and inspiration is just as important as any other resource you can include.
There are a huge range of props available for home corners, but it is nice to include real life objects as well. In the past I have used silver egg cups for toddlers as they also make cute little goblets, suitcases to store real life dress ups in small spaces, wooden spoons and silver cutlery, wooden bowls, small pots, pans, tea pots and fabrics. For older children, the dramatic play setting is a great place to introduce elements of responsibility by including glass jars, ceramic pots and other delicate items. If you plan to introduce breakable objects, it is really worth taking the time to teach children how to handle the dangers of breakages, to ask for help and to protect others from injury.
When choosing your resources, remember to take into account the children’s home cultures. Dramatic play spaces are a simple way of bringing familiar objects into the learning environment and introducing children to elements of diversity. It is easy to include cultural aspects into the space by considering the patterns and designs on different bowls, plates and platters, cultural dress ups, utensils, fabrics and table coverings. This is a great opportunity to invite families and children to contribute to their environment by bringing in things from home, or just giving ideas of what can be included. Again, try not to create an over stimulating space by including too many patterns, designs and bright colours, it really is about balance.
Through dramatic play, children of all ages are exploring their social understandings and their own sense of belonging. This is fundamental learning for developing children’s confidence and sense of identity. However, they are also practicing a variety of other skills as they manipulate props, dress ups, rearrange the space to suit their play and negotiate both the physical space and their social interactions.
With this amount of learning occurring and the number of scenarios being played out at once, it is important for educators to keep an ear out for cues that communications and negotiations may have broken down. When you step in, role model appropriate language and support children through difficult emotional interactions. This is social learning in action and shouldn’t cease because the play has broken down, allow the learning to continue through your own guidance and support.
Dramatic play is one of many play experiences that engages children in a variety of learning opportunities. Take the time to create inviting spaces that welcome children to learn about themselves and the world around them. Remember, if you don’t find a play space welcoming and inspiring, you can’t expect the children to.
Get down low, explore the space and have a play.