Everything You Need to Know About Dramatic Play for Preschoolers

“What are you doing?” I asked my child last week as I watched her lean one of our bar stools on its back and sit in the sideways seat.

Her response? “I’m driving an ice cream truck!”

As soon as she said it, I saw it. The front was the driver’s seat, and the back was the big part of the truck that holds the ice cream (just like the ice cream truck that drives through our neighborhood).

With this seat, we played for 45 minutes. We “drove”, took orders, delivered ice cream, and collected payment. If you ever wondered what dramatic play is, it’s this.

What Is Dramatic Play?

Dramatic play, also called pretend play, is when a child acts out situations from their world. This could be real-life scenarios like the doctor’s office or driving an ice cream truck. It could also be running from silly monsters and defeating them by throwing candy at them (also a game we’ve played in our house 😜).

Dramatic play, in essence, is a child’s use of their imagination to explore their surroundings and express themselves.

Why Is Dramatic Play Important?

To adults, dramatic play may just look like a child using their imagination to play something random, but it’s actually so much more!

Here are a few reasons why dramatic play is important for children’s brain development:

  • It gives children the opportunity to make sense of the world around them by placing them in specific scenarios.
  • It allows them to have an emotional outlet as they can express themselves in the form of another person or character.
  • It supports early reading and math skills through the use of money, time, counting, reading menus, and learning vocabulary terms specific to different themes.
  • It builds confidence in social situations by giving children practice communicating in a more formal way.
  • It supports creative thinking as children will use different props to represent specific items and think of more scenarios within a theme they’re acting out.
  • It supports quality time with caregivers.

Types of Dramatic Play

Dramatic play can be structured or unstructured. Structured play is when a child is given a scenario to act out. Unstructured play is when a child chooses their own scenario to act out.

It’s nice to have a balance of structured and unstructured play as it allows a child to lead their own learning and express themselves exactly as they wish (this is pretty easy to keep that balance because children have no problem telling you if they’re interested in an activity or not 😂). As mentioned before, letting children lead their play is so healthy and important for their development.

If we use unstructured play in our house, our child will play caretaker and make sure her baby is properly taken care of. She will also get into her car and drive around to different areas of the house (much like we do when we go out into the community). Recently, she moved a slide to her jumping area and turned it into a pool. She uses the pool to escape monsters in the house and then throws pretend candy at them from her Halloween bucket.

Sometimes she plays these games by herself and sometimes we play with her. It’s all about when she asks (and yes, there are times we say no because… well, 🥱).

If we use structured play in our house, it’s often with a dramatic play set. I’ve created an area in our living room that we can easily transform into a common place we visit in our own community. We play coffee shop, farmer’s market, and just recently added a lemonade stand into the mix!

How to Set Up Your Dramatic Play Area

“To each their own” is what comes to mind when thinking about this. Really, a child may see something completely different than we do, so they can often be in charge of setting things up for their dramatic play.

However, I do love a good cutesy area with a transformed theme when we’re playing. I love to set up the theme sign, open sign, hours, menu, vocabulary booklet, order forms, and props. This type of setup does support early literacy and math skills more than throwing random things together, but throwing random things together is also important!

How about adding props? Honestly, you may already have most things in your home. We do, but I love the printables for that added flair 😍. I’ve recently been holding onto my plastic almond butter jars to clean out for containers that can be used for “ice” or “sugar”.

For food-themed play sets, I like to have a few plastic cups, my child’s dishes, cotton balls for ice, tissue paper for drinks/ice cream/snow cones, pots, pans, and utensils for cooking/serving food, and trays for delivering food.

Melissa and Doug have countless pretend play sets that you can buy. They can be a tad pricey at times, but when you find the ones that children love, you’ll use them over and over.

Where do you keep all this?! I like storing my play sets in cheap containers I find from Dollar Tree. Just a place to put all the printables and other containers I might use to organize the play area. I have a designated cabinet in our house that all dramatic play sets go into. It’s kind of like a grab-and-go.

How to Support Children Through Dramatic Play

The gist? Have it available and follow their lead.

A while ago, my child wanted to play with her ice cream set and asked me to be the customer. She took my order and then directed me to sit on the couch to watch my movie. I realized that she was also playing movie theater (we had just gone the weekend before) and the customer enjoys their snacks while they watch their movie (just like we did at the theater).

A goal I’ve had recently is to play *most* times that my child says, “Play with me, mama!”

I get up off the couch (which I’m usually on, haha) and ask her what we’re playing. She tells me and then gives me my role. Then, we play.

Sometimes she has a completely made-up game (like swimming pool monsters), sometimes she sets up her own (like the bar stool food truck), and sometimes she wants to use one with all the pieces already available (like our printable play sets).

A child’s built-in imagination will lead the way, we just need to be available to join in on the fun. 🖤

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