The Building Blocks of Dramatic Play

February 10, 2021

“Dramatic Play.” For my fellow early childhood educators, these words can hold many different meanings: imagination, creativity, a clean-up disaster, playing dress-up, tearful negotiations over who gets to be the “mommy,” “Welcome to our restaurant! What would you like to eat?” and so much more. That is the beauty of dramatic play-- it is a time and space for children to freely express themselves and explore their many interests; to have agency and take control as producer, director, and actor in a world where they are often being told how to do things by others. Children are constantly taking in information from their day-to-day experiences. They notice and observe how caregivers interact with them, how their favorite television, book, and movie characters solve problems, and how their peers and teachers participate in a school day. Children are able to learn from these interactions and further process them through imaginative play. When emotional intelligence becomes a part of a child’s everyday learning and interactions, this too gets woven into the structure of their creative play. 

Through my experience as a begin to ECSEL educator, I have learned the importance of guiding children through the building blocks of emotional intelligence: identifying and recognizing emotions in yourself and others, understanding the causes of and differences between emotions, expressing emotions in constructive ways, and being able to regulate heightened emotions -- both positive and negative. As an educator of young children, I have also learned that each child is unique in their approach to learning; everyone learns differently. With this in mind, I use dramatic play as a vehicle to enhance emotional intelligence in my classroom. One of my favorite curriculum projects is having the class create their own play (or musical) based on the characters they want to be, and a problem they need to work together to solve. I love seeing how excited they get to describe and name their very own characters, and how they dig deep from their own experiences to offer a problem, and ways to solve it:

“What if my bald eagle character misses his mommy and daddy and baby brother, and all of his friends help him feel better?”

“Maybe all of the superheroes want to save the day but they can’t do it by themselves, they have to use teamwork.”

“I think both princesses want the crown, but they need to learn to share.”

By extending the imaginative and creative fun of dramatic play into a structured curriculum activity, children are given opportunities to label how characters are feeling, understand what happened to make them feel that way, choose how their characters will communicate their feelings to others, and decide how to solve the problem to help their characters feel better -- all the building blocks of emotional intelligence that will help them navigate and manage their own emotional experiences and expressions.

Although some dramatic play activities are planned, I have observed moments like this during unstructured choice times as well. With begin to ECSEL as a part of their day, there is a noticeable shift in how children respond, communicate, and interact with one another during their creative play. When children assume the roles of caregivers and nurturers, like family members, doctors, veterinarians, and teachers, I hear them asking their friends, baby dolls, or stuffed animals “are you okay? What do you need to feel better?” When children pretend to be superheroes out on the playground, I can hear the conversations shift away from “get the bad guys!” to “how can we save the day and solve the problem?” When teachers and caregivers model empathy and kindness around heightened emotional moments, guide children in their understanding of emotions, and respond in appropriate ways to answer emotional questions, they are in turn socializing them in emotionally intelligent ways. When children are then left to their own imaginations, this is the way they choose to interact with others.

For so many of my preschoolers over the years, dramatic play has been their absolute favorite classroom activity center. It is a creative environment in which they can be silly, be different, be brave, and be kind to others. It is also the single most difficult area for young children to pronounce, which hardly seems fair. However, I often find it hard to correct them when they ask for a turn in “Magic Play,” because in a way... they’re not wrong!

For more ideas about how to make the most of your dramatic play center and spark creativity in your childrens’ day, please download our Tips and Ideas for Dramatic Play.

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