When kindergarten lead teacher Margaret Chapman learned she would be taking a two-month leave of absence in early 2020 for heart surgery, she knew that she—along with assistant kindergarten teacher Bethany Stephensen—would have many tasks to complete to keep their classroom running smoothly. At the top of the list? Making sure students had a safe place to think about this major change to their school days.
“This is a big event the children will be processing in the coming weeks,” said Bethany.
Dramatic play: A type of play where students assign, take on, and act out different roles.
To support students, Bethany and Margaret set up a special dramatic play area known as the kinder-cardiology unit. There, the children can try on the role of cardiologists who fix hearts—just like the doctors who will be fixing Margaret’s. Complete with white coats, medical masks and hats, exam and x-ray rooms, a file for records and prescription orders, and instruments like stethoscopes and thermometers, the area is the perfect place for kindergarteners to try out procedures on one another, as well as on the classroom’s many stuffed animals.
Margaret intentionally sits near kinder-cardiology as the children play so they can ask her questions about her surgery and what school will be like while she is away. This is important, Bethany explained, because dramatic play provides more than simple amusement for children—it also helps them sort out the big, and sometimes scary, things happening around them that they don’t fully understand and can’t control.
Dramatic play is a fundamental component of learning and development, helping children to work through their lived experiences and cope with emotions.—Bethany Stephensen, kindergarten assistant teacher
“Dramatic play is a fundamental component of learning and development, helping children to work through their lived experiences and cope with emotions,” said Bethany. “It is an opportunity for children—whose lives are largely controlled by adults—to feel powerful and capable.”
Gail Rose, 3PreK lead teacher, and Mary Swaminathan, 3PreK assistant teacher, agreed. “Dramatic play allows children to act out their stories and gives them the opportunity to see the world from a different perspective,” they explained.
Knowing the importance of this type of play during early childhood, “we are always on the lookout for themes that are naturally coming up in children’s play or experiences in their lives that are impacting their experiences at school,” Bethany said. “We then develop emergent curriculum to scaffold children’s learning through play opportunities based on our observations.”
And while adult involvement can be beneficial in certain types of dramatic play, Rowland Hall’s Beginning School teachers are also clear that children need access to unstructured, or open-ended, play.
“We strive to find a balance between structured and unstructured play experiences,” said Bethany. “It's important to us to be mindful of when children should be left to their play and when adult involvement and encouragement of specific types of play or skill practice is beneficial.”
Unstructured play among children helps them develop important social skills they’ll need for life, like teamwork, confidence, problem-solving, language development, self-control, and emotional regulation. Best of all, children don’t need much to make it happen: dramatic play requires minimal props and only a bit of space, whether it’s in a classroom or in an open area like a playground.
Dramatic play can also be encouraged in home spaces, further benefiting children. For parents and caregivers wishing to continue this kind of play outside of school hours, Gail and Mary gave the following tips:
- Be a good listener to find out what interests your child.
- Be open to joining dramatic play in a supportive role, but don’t direct it.
- Remember that dramatic play only requires some space and minimal props—use what is available.
- Read quality children’s literature to help give kids ideas.
Above all, they said, remember that children are natural storytellers—you can support them by simply being a good listener, and, most of all, by having fun.