Category Archives: dramatic play

Up, Up, and Away! Superhero Capes for Preschoolers!

While I’m working on some exciting new things, here’s a revisit to an old post originally posted February 25, 2009!

dscn1253If you’re looking for a quick, inexpensive, no-sew way to create capes for your super-preschooler, look no further!  No super powers are required here, just fabric, self-adhesive Velcro tabs, and scissors!

For your fabric, start with tricot (pronounced “tree-co”).  Call your local fabric stores to find one that carries it.  It is fabulously shiny and light so that it ripples and flows as the wearer takes flight!  As for super powers, it doesn’t fray, so it doesn’t require any hemming to finish the edges. 

Tricot comes on very wide bolts.  You only need about 20 inches for a cape, so with the wide width, you can purchase twenty inches and make about 3 or 4 capes.  Once you have the tricot, cut a rectangle about 18 inches by 20 inches.  (The size is by no means exact.  This is the size that has worked for my 2-5 year olds, but feel free to adjust!)


Next, fold the piece in half, lengthwise, and round out the bottom and top to give the cape more shape.  The cuts don’t need to be exact, but this is the shape I cut mine into.


 Last step, attach the Velcro to the corners.  One tab goes on the inside, the other on the outside, so that the corners overlap smoothly when the tabs are attached.dscn1260 

If you aren’t absolutely, morally opposed to sewing, you could reinforce the tabs with a quick “x” stitch to strengthen them against the repeated pulling they will be getting. 


Ka-pow!  You’re done!  If you want to, you can add embellishments such as sequins, logos ,or crests, but I haven’t seen any lack of enthusiasm from wearers of the plain variety.  Additionally, leaving the cape plain gives it more versatility for a variety of players and story-lines.  Capes are a simple and great addition to power up dramatic play!

Read more about superhero play here!

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Filed under dramatic play, Learning through Play and Experience, supplies

The Preschool Pirate

It could be all this writing about imaginative play that has got me thinking about pirates.  Or maybe it was my 4-year-old’s comments about “the pirate species”.  (“You know mom, guys with eye patches and swords – the pirate species!”)  Either way, I thought I’d share some pirate fun with you!

  While I wouldn’t recommend pirates as an overall “theme” for a preschool curriculum (not a lot of directly applicable learning objectives unless plundering is on your list)  it can be used to teach some great elements within another theme.  I like to add it in as a fun twist within another unit like water or oceans or something like that.  I personally like to add it in at the end of the unit, as a celebration! 

So whether you’re looking for ideas to use within a curriculum, or just some fun ways to play and learn with your little buccaneers, here are a few suggestions:

Make an amazing pirate ship from cardboard using plans and fasteners from Mr. McGroovy.  (This site is definitely worth checking out for a variety of prop ideas for dramatic play or a special event!)  If you’re feeling a little less ambitious, just grab a map, a telescope, and a compass, hop aboard your couch or bed and let imagination set sail!

Make a Pirate Snack Mix and use a variety of math concepts – as well as your taste buds!

Have a Treasure Hunt, or play this Treasure Task game!  Following those clues builds cognitive skills and really helps children get into the role of the swashbuckler!

Hunt for pennies in sand and shells in the sensory bin, or fill plastic eggs with pennies and bury them in a larger sandbox outside.  Builds sensory and large motor skills, and it’s loads of fun!  You could also hide beads as “jewels” and then bring them in for a stringing activity!

Read one of these great pirate books:

Shiver Me Letters: A Pirate ABC

Shiver Me Letters by June Sobel is quite possibly my favorite alphabet-based story.  Just fantastic!  Couple it with the Pirate Snack Mix, or bury small letters in your sandbox or sensory bin for a twist on the digging activity above!

Pirate Pete's Talk Like a Pirate

Pirate Pete’s Talk Like a Pirate by Kim Kennedy is such a fun read, full of wonderful vocabulary and great story structure.  Just be sure to use your full repertoire of narrative voices to bring each character to life!  (And don’t forget Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19th)!)

How I Became a Pirate

How I Became a Pirate by Melinda Long (and illustrated by one of my favorites, David Shannon) is a fanciful tale of, well, how a boy becomes a pirate, of course!  An inside look at the life of a pirate, and a few reasons why it’s more fun to simply pretend!  Follow up with a treasure hunt, or by making a picture map of your room or play yard!

What are your favorite pirate adventures to share with your little scallywags?

Top photo by borja.

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Filed under book activity, Building Readers, dramatic play, Learning through Play and Experience, Recipes - Edible

A Part of Their World: Adult Roles in Child’s Play

I wrote yesterday about the importance of dramatic play in the development of the whole child.  It is true that a large part of the benefit from this type of play comes from the fact that it is intrinsically driven and self-guided.  However, sometimes there is a need for adult interaction or intervention.  While joining in is a natural way to  scaffold the child’s play, helping him to become more competent in the skill, it’s also a lot of fun, and a great way to build a good relationship with kids!

Here are a few ways adults can become involved in creative play with children. I have listed them here in increasing levels of involvement.  One is not necessarily better than the other; different levels of involvement are more appropriate, dependent upon each situation.  You do want to be aware, however, that this is primarily free-play, and you should avoid the temptation to turn it into an adult-centered pageant.

Set the Stage.

The least intrusive role is that of stage crew.  Providing time and space for free play as well as materials for props, encourages dramatic play.  While you’re setting aside chunks of time in your schedule, assigning them to piano lessons, reading time, and chores, be sure you’re also allocating time for children to engage in self-directed play.  Often all a child needs is time without organized sports or lessons or a screen in front of them, and they will naturally begin to engage in creative play.

When you’re thinking about space, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to take much.  My dad once had my own boys playing along with him as though they were a team of astronauts exploring the universe – all from the confinement of their car seats during a long car drive.   What’s important isn’t so much the amount of space, but that  the space invites play and conveys to the children that it’s OK to play there.

You might set up a dramatic play area in your classroom or playroom, or you might want to concentrate on your outdoor play space.  Be intentional in creating your space and consider what type of play it invites.   It has been found that children’s play is more elaborate when their play space allows for organization and division of space.  This means that a playground with structures and landscaping will more readily lend itself to rich play than a flat expanse of grass; an area with child-sized furniture more than an open empty room.

Provide costumes and props that inspire creativity.  While it’s true that there are few substitutes for a fire hat, you will also be grateful for versatile items like scarves that can quickly change from capes to skirts and from masks to hats.  Also take note of the “real-world” items you can use as props, particularly those that expose children to meaningful print and encourage reading and writing (menus, phone books, maps, etc.).

Be in the Audience.

You may be a casual observer of children playing, monitoring to make sure they are successfully working out any problems, and that they are keeping their play within necessary limits (staying within the back yard, for example.)

You may want to make a more studied approach to your observation, taking note of the skills the children may need to develop, the materials and supplies that may be necessary to  enhance future play, or the topics you should explore and discuss together.  After watching a group of children spend several days pretending to be dogs, cats, and owners, I knew that the logical theme for our next study unit would be pets!

You might approach the children and ask them to tell you about what they’re doing, allowing them to process and verbalize the story they’ve been acting out.  This exercise is almost identical to recalling a story they have listened to or read, and therefore fosters comprehension skills.

You may also be formally invited to be the audience for your young performers.  They may want you to sit back and watch the “play”, or they may just continually remind you that they are ninjas – as they run and jump past you on their way to the back yard.  Magnify this role by giving positive, stimulating feedback.  Comment on what happens just as though you were a play-by-play sportscaster (“You saved him just before the dragon came back!”) to reinforce their play and build their language skills.   Encourage more thought as you ask about what the characters are feeling or what they might do next.

Become a Player

Sometimes a child will invite you to join in as another playmate.  Other times you may need to carefully enter the play to redirect undesirable behavior.  Sometimes you may have to start playing alone and invite children to join you to get them to engage in the activity.

In any situation, avoid taking over the leader role in the play any longer than you have to. Make suggestions when necessary (“Paul doesn’t want to be the bad guy, but we really need another good guy to help fly the ship over here.”), but then step back and let the children guide.  Lead with questions (“Where should we go next?”) to encourage the children to take the lead.

Keep in mind that whenever you are a participant, you are directly modeling the skill of “playing”.  Individual children need more coaching in some areas than others, but all children can gain something from observing you.  Be aware of how you use your example to teach social skills like negotiating, including others, and entering and exiting play.  You can also exemplify the creative act of pretending.  Sparking new stories with your imagination teaches children that they can do the same.

How has your involvement influenced the play of those little ones you love and teach?  How has their play influenced you?

Top photo by mrinkk.

Center photo by DAVIDKNOX.


Filed under Article, dramatic play

Enchanted Learning: The Benefits of Fantasy Play for Children

Many parents have come to their child’s preschool teacher with the same concern.  “It seems like my child plays dress-up all day at preschool.  What could he possibly be learning from that?”  The question is understandable – what does he learn from leaping around with his cape fluttering behind him?  And yet, the question is somewhat ironic, as these very parents likely spent much of their childhood engaged in the same kind of play.

I personally still have vivid memories of my own childhood, as my playmates and I snuck past sleeping giants, swung through the trees in the Amazon, and set sparkling lures for fairies.  In fact, my playmates themselves included one conjured character named Cheney, a girl who lived in the clouds.

The truth is, this type of play is so enchanting and natural that we often only see the fun in it.  And that is much of what makes this learning medium so effective.

Learn to Play, Learn to Learn.

In Vivian Gussin Paley’s book, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play, she cites the landmark work of Sara Smilansky which found that children who lacked the skills necessary for fantasy play also struggled in other areas of classroom learning.  High quality play, she found, could be taught by children, to children, and appeared to be the “necessary precursor for every other kind of learning in a classroom.” (pg 71)

In truth, real education is about processing ideas, and fantasy play is the fertile ground where children’s ideas are scattered, nurtured, and allowed to flourish. In fantasy play, children are able to use abstract and representational thinking, allowing a bowl to become a hat, an empty pot to become a steamy aromatic soup, and a pile of pillows to become a boiling lava flow.

While some may see this ability to “live in another world” as simply being disconnected and distracted, this ability shows an advance in cognitive processing.  To move from the realm of the concrete to that which is symbolic and intangible is necessary to process ideas, consider theories, and process the consequences of actions before acting.  This self-guided play requires planning, regulating, and negotiating.  In short, the act of “acting” strengthens the executive functions of the brain.

Pretend Stories.

While some would prefer to eliminate this time for fanciful play in favor of more reading instruction, it is actually this ability to live in the abstract of the pretend world, that allows children to function in the symbolism of the written world.  It is difficult for a child to learn that lines on paper can represent words, ideas, and stories.  But for a child who has created and acted out his own story, or chosen objects as symbols in that story (a ball becomes a cat, a blanket becomes a lake, etc.) the leap to reading becomes a more simple and natural step.

The language and creative skills used to create and act out these fantastic stories are the same skills that allow children to understand, create, and process written stories.  Reading comprehension after all, is the ability to understand, connect, and draw meaning from stories.  And stories are really what pretend play is all about.

Problem solving is another critical skill developed when children are surrounded by their own stories.  While we may see only children caught up in a land of make-believe they are actually honing highly marketable skills.  Think about it.  Any man or woman who can identify a problem, come up with a creative and viable solution, and then negotiate with others to provide for its implementation, will always have a great deal of job security.  And these abilities are inherently fostered in pretend play as children do just that.

You Be the Good Guy.

Social skills are deeply nurtured through this type of play as well.   In fact, it is often referred to as socio-dramatic play, because of its strong social component. Negotiating with others and orchestrating roles takes a great deal of social finesse.  Additionally, taking on the role of someone else builds a child’s capacity to see things through another’s eyes – an exercise in abstract thinking that leads to the growth of empathy. Experimenting with these various social roles also helps a child to understand the inner workings of social relationships.

Closely tied to social skills is psychological health, which is also promoted through pretend play.  Children use pretend play to process major events in their lives, allowing them to have power when they felt powerless or to simply make sense of it all.  A child who was involved in an auto accident may recreate similar events, “taking people to the hospital” over and over again.  Or a child with a new baby in the family may take on the role of the new mom or even of the baby, giving her a sense of control in a situation where she feels she has none.  Therapists even use “Play Therapy” as a prevalent and successful practice where children are helped to discuss, process, and rehearse skills within the naturally therapeutic medium of play.

The World is a Stage.

In a classroom setting, there is often a dramatic play area, set aside for this crucial type of play-based learning.  While this area may be its home, anyone who has closely observed young children can testify that this is not the only area where this type of play takes place.  The block area and sensory table are frequent homes to this type of play as well, as blocks become secret fortresses and rice becomes a threatening snowstorm.  Outdoor play areas become ever-changing sets as children travel through the wilderness, under the sea, and into other worlds.  In truth, nowhere is safe from the transformative powers of a child’s imagination. Even when we are unaware, a child may be creating and pretending, assigning roles, and imagining scenes without ever saying a word.

Let’s Play School.

Pretend play is a powerful tool in building and strengthening the powers of the human intellect.  It is a natural form of learning and developmental growth.  The fact that it often happens naturally, without a textbook or a flashcard series does not take away its value as an educational tool.  As Paley states in her book, “If readiness for school has meaning, it is to be found first in the children’s flow of ideas, their own, and those of their peers, families, teachers, books, and television, from play into story and back into more play.” (pg 11)

By promoting creative play we are not just validating the work of childhood, but we are promoting thought, language, and psycho-social health.  Add to that the fact that this type of play is self-motivated, natural, and enjoyable, and you have the recipe for a fabulous learning opportunity!

This week, my posts will focus on promoting dramatic play in young children.  So check back with me for more on this fascinating topic!  In the meantime, you might want to check out Paley’s book, the article Can We Play? by David Elkind, this thought provoking piece by “The Grandmother’s”, or this earlier post on pretend play.  Be sure to check in throughout the week for more information and an exciting giveaway!

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Top photo from personal collection.  Please do not use without permission.

Center photo by rrss.


Filed under Article, dramatic play, language activity

Eric Carle Author Study: The Very Busy Spider and The Very Lonely Firefly

 The Very Busy Spider

Eric Carle’s The Very Busy Spider will always be one of my favorites because it was one of the first books I regularly read to my first son.  It’s a simple story of a spider slowly building a perfect web as the barnyard animals come one by one to invite her to play.  By the end of the story, the web is finished, the pesky fly has been caught, and the spider is ready for a good night’s sleep.  The patterned text is great for reading with young children – invite them to join in with you! 

True to his hands-on approach, Eric Carle created a raised spiderweb that can be felt as you run your fingers across the page.  You can encourage the children to examine how the web was made as it grows gradually from page to page.  Point out to the children that a spider’s web is usually very well designed.  Talk about the types of lines in the design, and the steps the spider went through to create the final web.

After reading the story you can help the children create their own webs by soaking white crochet string in liquid starch and then having the children arrange it on wax paper.  You could even shake some glitter on to give it that sparkly dew look.  After drying overnight, the webs should be stiff and can be peeled off of the wax paper!  Don’t expect the children to make their webs look like the one in the book – these are their own webs to spin!

This book is a great opportunity to talk about spiders, their traits, and how they build webs and why.  The activity also encourages creativity and small motor skills while reinforcing story comprehension.

The Very Lonely Firefly

Fireflies are simply enchanting!  The Very Lonely Firefly captures that mystique as it follows one solitary firefly looking for the lights of other fireflies.  He travels past candles, flashlights, and fireworks before finally finding a group of friends.  This book features a light-up page to bring in Eric Carle’s flair for special-effects.

After reading, have your children become fireflies!  Start out by making simple antennae using sentence strips or poster board (they can decorate with crayons if they wish) and pipe cleaners.

Next, comes the fun science part!  Talk about how and why fireflies glow (there’s great information inside the cover of the book, as well as in this video).  Basically, fireflies glow because of a chemical reaction; glow sticks work on the same principle.  So if you have a safe dark place, go there with the children and have them watch as you activate a glow stick, snapping the inner barriers to cause a chemical reaction. (Be aware of anyone who might be afraid of the dark.)  I like to buy the necklace glow sticks and let the children wear them, along with their antennae.  They look like fantastic fireflies!  If you have an open space, free from obstacles and perhaps with a little light for safety, you can have the children act out the story, trying to find their friends in the dark by looking for their lights!  Story-acting is wonderful for comprehension, and the kids love it!

fireflies in a jar by jamelah.

Enjoy exploring the world of bugs through Eric Carle’s eyes!

Previous Eric Carle Book Activity: The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Up Next: The Grouchy Ladybug and The Very Clumsy Click Beetle

For more bug-themed ideas, check out this brainstorm! 

Web photo by josowoa.

Firefly photo by jamelah.


Filed under book activity, Building Readers, Create, dramatic play, fine motor skills, language activity, Learning through Play and Experience, science activity

Welcome to the Pizza Shop! Prop Ideas for Preschool Dramatic Play

Melissa & Doug Pizza Party

Pizza Shop, Pizzeria, Pizza Restaurant, whatever you like to call it, it’s a perfect dramatic play scenario for preschoolers.  I would venture to say that most preschoolers have experience with pizza.  It’s something familiar and almost universally enjoyed.  Here are some prop ideas for creating a great pizza shop themed dramatic play area that will have your children ready to serve you up a slice!

Go to the Source.  Visit a pizza shop in your neighborhood and ask if they would mind donating a few things to a preschool.  See if you can get a small-sized pizza box or two, a few menus, even disposable cups, napkins and plates if they’ve got logos on them.  These props not only authenticate the experience, but they add environmental print as the children recognize the word “pizza”, and perhaps the name of the local shop.  If you’ve got an artistic flair, you could even transfer that logo onto a paper sign for your shop as well.  Don’t forget an “Open” sign for one of the best sources of environmental print!  Including environmental print is a huge way to boost early literacy skills.

Serve Up a Slice.  Of course, you need a pizza!  I like the Melissa and Doug set pictured above.  (It’s available through many different sources, but if you click the picture, it will take you to Amazon.  Just one option.)  I like that the children can change the toppings with the velcro pieces, and cut through the velcro between slices as well.  Whether intentional or by providence, I also found that this pizza fits perfectly in the small-sized pizza box donated by my local pizza shop!  With this prop, you can easily work in some discussions about shapes as the toppings are circles, on a circle pizza, that can be cut into triangles, and it all fits into a square-shaped pizza box!  Did you ever realize how much geometry was involved in one of America’s favorite convenience foods?

Write Now.  Whenever possible, you want to integrate reading and writing experiences into your dramatic play props.  That’s why including the environmental print is so important.  Hopefully you’ve been able to score some menus, so provide paper and pencils for taking orders too.  You could use small notepads, scrap paper, or purchase relatively inexpensive guest checks (like these) from an office supply store.  Children will write at their developmental level.  Some will “scribble-write”, some will draw letter-like shapes, while others will copy down letters from the menu to record the orders!

Set it Up!  Now you want to arrange your area using furniture.  Depending upon your resources and space, you may simply want a take-out shop!  My preferred set up is with a front desk/counter including a cash register, printing calculator, or old computer keyboard; pretend money; the menus; order tickets; and pencils.  Behind that is the play kitchen with the pizza, boxes, and other kitchen supplies.  Last of all is the kitchen area with a table, chairs, and table setting.

Let your children take a part in creating your pizza shop!  You may be surprised at the details they have noticed during their “pizza experiences” that we adults will overlook.  And let us know here about the improvements you’ve made together!

(And just because I can’t ever resist the urge to recommend a good book, you could check out “Pete’s a Pizza” by William Steig.)

For more food-themed activities, click here!


Filed under Building Readers, dramatic play, Learning through Play and Experience

A Camping We Will Go!

camp signKids love the adventure of camping!  Particularly when it comes to camping in a dramatic play scenario, anything can happen!  When I set up a camping theme dramatic play area this week, my own 3 year old asked, “And where is the bear?”  I could guess he already had a storyline brewing.  In the course of a few days, he and his friends camped, chased bears, were bears, and in a strange twist, even turned their tent into a tank and joined the military.  (I told you anything could happen!)


So here are the supplies I suggest for a camping dramatic play area.  PLEASE let me know what you like to add!

  • A tent, of course!  I used a play tent here, but I’ve also used a real dome tent in larger areas or outside.
  • Backpacks – stocked with blankets, flashlights, old cell phones, compasses, binoculars, and play food.
  • Location, location, location!  Add something to make your woodsy retreat.  If you’re setting up outside, great!  You’re done!  Here I used a tree prop.  It’s made from a large cardboard box (from a car seat, I think), opened on one side and then folded out into a large strip.  These folds make it much easier to store.  I tape up fall leaves, apples, and anything else I may need to make a more specific tree.  You can’t see the color much in this photo, but I colored the canopy of the tree using three crayons in different shades of green, holding all three at once, and drawing curly cues all around.
  • Reading Resources.  You may add some field guides, or nonfiction animal books for the campers to use to identify their furry and feathered neighbors.
  • Characters.  With my son’s request, I also added a bear puppet.  You may want to add other animals as puppets, stuffed toys, murals, or even birds suspended from the ceiling if you’re that ambitious!

Dramatic play encourages symbolic thinking, a necessary skill for reading.  Also, social and language skills grow by leaps and bounds as they negotiate and implement roles and plots.  (To learn more about dramatic play, click here!)  Camping is a great dramatic play theme for many nature units, including trees and leaves, fall, and animals.

What would you add to this camping props list?

For more favorite fall activities, click here!

Top photo by porah.


Filed under dramatic play, Learning through Play and Experience