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How Dramatic Play Supports Social-Emotional Learning and Development

Toddler engages in dramatic play as a veterinarian, supporting his social emotional development

Dramatic play, also commonly referred to as imaginary play or pretend play, is an important component of early learning. When children dress up and pretend to be someone other than themselves, they get to be creative and to imagine and explore different roles and relationships. Dramatic play in a group setting strengthens social-emotional skills, as children collaborate with their peers, learn about different cultures, take on a variety of perspectives, and think about the experiences of others. 

Supporting Empathy and Social Skills

Dramatic play offers a unique opportunity for children to exercise their social skills. When children engage in dramatic play, they put themselves in someone else’s shoes, which can help them develop empathy for the feelings and experiences of others. 

Through specific kinds of dramatic play, such as pretending to be doctors, firefighters, or other kinds of community helpers, children can practice caring for others. Taking on the role of helper invites children to think about people who might be in need of help, which in turn encourages a deeper sense of thoughtfulness and consideration for the needs of other people. 

An article in the Harvard Graduate School of Education magazine, Usable Knowledge, points out that “Playing with others means noticing social cues, listening, and taking another person’s perspective…Social play also requires children to share ideas and express feelings while negotiating and reaching compromises.” 

Relationship-Building Through Culturally Relevant Play

High-quality dramatic play experiences can introduce children to different cultures and values.  For example, when children play “house,” they share parts of their own home and family experiences with their peers. Their play scenarios might include the people who live in their homes with them talking with one another, engaging in household activities, and cooking and enjoying their favorite foods.   Through these conversations, children are practicing language and verbal skills while learning about new cultures and about what life is like in homes outside of their own. According to an article in the NAEYC magazine, Teaching Young Children, “young children draw from their experiences to enhance their play. Children reenact activities and observations from family life and share common events in their cultures. Authentic dramatic play leads to children’s meaningful learning.” 

Adding dress-up clothing from other countries to your dramatic play area invites children to talk about traditions, languages, and practices that are different from their own. These experiences encourage children to be curious about the world around them and to develop connections and friendships with diverse peers. 

Opportunities for Regulating and Expressing Emotions

Through dramatic play, children get to discuss and practice navigating different emotions. Helen Livshits, a speech-language pathologist at The Hanen Centre for Children’s Language Development,  explains that pretend play offers children an opportunity to practice emotional regulation: “When children take on a role and act out a situation, they get the chance to practice experiencing the associated feelings of that character on their own terms. For example, a child who is typically afraid of heights, can pretend to be a brave firefighter who willingly climbs up a ‘ladder’ to save the teddy bear. Pretend play, therefore, sets the stage for emotional self-regulation.”

Through pretend play, children can act out different scenarios and pretend to be someone with feelings other than their own. They have an opportunity to talk through what kinds of feelings or emotions the character might be experiencing. For children who are more shy or introverted, dramatic play can also be a powerful tool for helping them to come out of their shell and express themselves. 

Supporting High-Quality Dramatic Play Experiences

As with so many aspects of early learning, dramatic play is most beneficial when we let children lead the way, while also helping to extend their exploration. Here are a few tips to help you support children in their dramatic play experiences: 

  • Introduce the play area. If you have set up a new dramatic play area, spend some time showing children the area and the types of props that are available for them to use. You might even read books as a large group with characters that the children can pretend to be. This helps children become more familiar with what to do in the dramatic play space. 

  • Observe to see what children are interested in. Watch children as they engage in the area to see what kinds of items you might be able to add to extend their play. For example, if you have set up a pretend garden and you notice that children are selling the flowers, you might bring in pretend money or a play cash register to support their interests. 

  • Join in the play! If children are not engaging in the space, or if they aren’t sure how to interact with the materials, consider joining their play to give them ideas. If you have set up a play doctor’s office, ask the children what they might do to help someone who has a scrape on their arm or how to take care of a doll who is sick. 

  • Offer diverse props. Props can be added to build on children’s experiences. For example, if you have a play kitchen set up in your classroom, you might add chopsticks, a tortilla warmer, or other items that reflect the culture of the children in your classroom. Add familiar recipes to the space or photos of different kinds of baked goods, for children to use as inspiration in their pretend baking.

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