Tag Archives: dress-up

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

Book Activity: Piggy Pie

Piggie Pie!Piggie Pie by Margie Palatini is the perfect non-Halloween, Halloween book.  It’s not specifically Halloween themed, but it is a creative combination of a grouchy, hungry witch and some sly pigs who use costumes to avoid becoming ingredients.  As you read this story with your little ones, really play up the voices and point out the details in the pictures.  With particularly young children, you may need to explain that the pigs are dressing up in order to trick the witch.  From there, you can easily make connections with their own dress-up experiences, on Halloween or otherwise.

I would make a note of two things here.  The end of the book ties this story in with the Big Bad Wolf from the Three Little Pigs.  Very young children will have a hard time making that connection.  You can help this connection by being sure that the children are already familiar with the story of the Three Little Pigs through previous activities, or you can just glide over it.  It’s not a critical element in the story.  Secondly, the witch does get upset several times in this book and basically throws a tantrum.  Take the opportunity to teach social skills by pointing out her behavior and what is and isn’t appropriate behavior.  It’s easy to point out undesirable behavior in a witch because, afterall, she is a witch.  Don’t detract too much from the story, but if you’re seeing some similar behavior in your own children, you might give them the opportunity to be the expert and make suggestions for a better course of action for the witch.  They may later realize these suggestions work for themselves as well!

After reading this story, you can easily incorporate patterning using pigs and witches.  Just find your favorite witch clip art (this one will do) and copy and paste about 12 (size to about 1 to 2 inches for easy handling).  Do the same with your favorite pig clip (maybe this one).  You may want just one set or you may want a set for each child in your small group.  Use these pieces to sort, count, and create simple ABA patterns.  For older, more advanced children you may also create more complicated patterns.  Take turns with the children so that they get the opportunity to both create and complete patterns.

This activity builds language and literacy skills as well as math skills.  As a bonus, it’s a hugely enjoyable story for both you and the children you love and teach!

For more favorite fall activities, click here!

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Filed under book activity, Building Readers, language activity, Learning through Play and Experience, math activity, social skills

Up, Up, and Away! Superhero Capes for Preschoolers

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, so with the wide width, you can purchase twenty inches and make probably 3 or 4 capes.  Once you have the tricot, cut a rectangle about 18 inches by 20 inches.  dscn1257(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, supplies

How to Build a Mailbox for Your Preschool Post Office

dscn1174Have you ever looked at those darling mailboxes designed for dramatic play in the supply catalogs, and just wished that you could rationalize a few hundred bucks for such an investment?  Well, stop trying to rationalize because I have a more budget-friendly alternative. 

These mailboxes were made from “Costco-sized” diaper boxes.  I spray painted them blue, cut a letter slot by cutting the three sides of a rectangle.  On the fourth side, I made a crisp bend (may be aided by making a shallow cut through the first layer on the inside with a razor) and reinforced it on the inside with packing tape so that it wouldn’t wear out from being opened and closed.  The handles were leftovers from a kitchen remodel, but you can also buy simple handles pretty inexpensively at your hardware store.  Poke holes through the cardboard, basically “pilot holes”, and then thread the screws through like you would on a cabinet.  Cut a similar slot at the bottom of the back for the letter carrier to retrieve the mailed letters.  (I skipped the handle in the back and cut a notch instead.) 

Decorate with homemade signs, or contact your local post office and ask if they have any post office items ready to discard.  I contacted someone I know (who happened to be in the process of de-junking the office) and ended up with these signs on my mailboxes as well as out-of-date forms, ink stamps, and a variety of boxes, envelopes, and even letter carrier hats that were on their way to the garbage.  It’s always surprising what you end up with when you’re willing to ask!

A few additional things to keep in mind when making and using these boxes:

  • Allow plenty of time for the boxes to air out after being spray painted.  Letting the project sit in your garage over the weekend is ideal for getting rid of the potent spray paint scent.
  • For use in your dramatic play area, set up hats and bags for your letter carriers, as well as a post office area complete with a desk, computer, cash register, 1 cent stamps, forms, etc.  Supply your writing area with envelopes and plenty of paper, and you’re ready for a steady stream of mail!
  • When these boxes are not in use, open the flaps on the top and bottom and fold the boxes flat for storage.  Reassemble and tape the flaps back down when you’re ready to use them again!

Using these props in the dramatic play area encourage language development, and are particularly motivating for writers.  They also introduce or reinforce the social construct of the postal system and the prosocial skill of friendship through communication.  Incorporate math skills by playing the Mail Match Math game!  Take your class on a field trip to your local post office to really spark interest.  It also works well as a theme during February to connect the ideas of Valentines (letters), friendship, and communication!

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