Children learn by imitating.
A baby’s first smile mirrors another’s grin; the first babbles mimic a parent’s speech. It’s therefore hardly surprising that the earliest role play children act outcomes from familiar domestic scenes. Examples include chatting away into a toy phone or cooking up a storm with plastic food and making mud pies. They love to play families too, being mum, dad, the dog or baby brother. It follows that many Early Years’ settings have a home corner with pots, pans, brushes, brooms, dolls, cribs and pushchairs, the familiar home paraphernalia. It welcomes and encourages role play, and this is appropriate, but how do we encourage children to develop their imaginary play beyond the familiar? How can we guide them to adopt roles outside of their known domestic experience?
Role play is an important part of learning and development.
Role play develops communication and language, as well as social interaction, imaginative play, problem-solving and building confidence. As Education Researcher Anne Flemmert notes, role play is where “Children can try out risky ideas in a safe universe. They can explore boundaries, make sense of their world and develop their own identity.” It’s a space for children to work out what it means to be a mum, teacher, farmer, bus driver or astronaut.
Types of role play.
To optimise the ‘role play’ space, it is useful to recognise types of role play. Role play (or Socio-Dramatic Play) begins in earnest around the age of 3. Before that, pretend play is about the familiar, with dolls and real objects. It imitates daily activities and the people closest to them. After the age of three, role play emerges from this familiar domestic to the familiar fantasy.
Familiar fantasy is based around super-heroes, weapon play and well-known fictional characters such as Buzz Lightyear, Peppa Pig and ninjas.
Then there’s unfamiliar domestic play, which means acting out less familiar events such as going to the doctor, dentist or garden centre.
The next stage is imagined fantasy with events conjured up in their heads.
Language and props.
As role play develops so does the use of language, dialogue and interaction between children. The talk may be about planning their play as well as being part of the play, and the play becomes people rather than object-orientated. ”
Let “their imaginations … run wild and take a leap, if that is what they want to do … as their experience and understanding of the world increases, imagination will take a greater role in their play…”
Alistair Bryce-Clegg, (Best Practice in the Early Years, Bloomsbury, p 86)
The familiar fantasy stage.
The familiar fantasy stage is all about knowing how to interest and engage, so get to know what interests each child, find out what inspires them and what they enjoy. It may be dinosaurs, baking, or in my son’s case, playing Ninja Mums and Dads! Provide the props (tea set, small world animals, headgear, tail) to accompany their play, and they will soon improvise and introduce their imagined objects.
Other ways to encourage familiar fantasy play.
Other ways to encourage familiar fantasy play are:
- Reading and becoming familiar with stories. For example,
Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and providing simple props to act as prompts to retell the story (3 bowls, small, medium and large, or three cuddly bears and a blonde wig).
The Smartest Giant in Town, with its repeating language and carnival of animals, accompanied with giant cardboard feet, a scarf, socks, tie and small world creatures.
Equally, it might spawn a completely different story or sequence of events, but that doesn’t matter one jot. It’s developing the skills; the communication, the co-operation, the imagination, the story-telling and improvisation. They’re in a role and working alongside others.
- Listening to children’s own made up games – if they’re inspired by Frozen, help them to create crowns from cardboard strips and gowns from a swishy shiny material. Go with the flow!
- Installing a mystery object – perhaps it’s a broken chair, a letter from Father Christmas, a frozen egg, an invite to the alien’s party. Where will their play take them?
Unfamiliar Domestic Play.
Adults can enhance this type of role-playing by widening a child’s experience. Open their eyes by going on trips to new shops and places. Introduce new language and terms, and by reading books and sharing photos and clips about unexplored places.
To prepare for a trip to the dentist read a book, such as Topsy and Tim go to the Dentist (Jean and Gareth Adamson, Penguin, 2009). Talk about the dental instruments, the tip up the chair, what the dentist might look like, the sounds and smells. Model asking Teddy to, ‘Open wide!’ Shine a light and put a mirror in his mouth, add sound effects, chatter and commentary. Television programmes, such as CBeebie’s Let’s Play, introduce and scene set less familiar experiences and roles. Similarly, a hospital appointment might be the catalyst for this type of play, so respond with books and pictures to engage with the experience.
A dressing-up box full of ordinary and unusual objects may inspire all sorts of original storytelling and characters. Include materials of different textures, colours and patterns, unusual or outrageous clothes (who would wear this?), hats, bags, scarves and shoes that change how you walk. Also ask lots of open-ended questions: who are you? Where do you come from? Who are your friends? What is happening? How are you feeling? (Find a full ‘dressing up box’ list at www.theplayhouse.org)
Encourage the children to create their own stories from a box full of objects. They also need to find, make and imagine or improvise with their items. Prompt their imaginations with lots of questions. Where does it (the object) come from? What does it look like? How did it get here? Who does it belong to? Story Cubes, with their visual prompts, may help get the story-telling started.
Who’s in charge?
Remember, this is the children’s space, they are in control of the role play. It’s the skills you are looking to encourage, not the content. If they aren’t using the space, or if the play is repetitive or staying in safe territory, it isn’t encouraging effective learning or progression.
I remember creating a beautiful (to my flower-loving adult mind) garden centre. For whatever reason it didn’t appeal to the children; just one or two visited to use the calculator! We asked them what they knew about garden centres, and one said it was about meeting Santa, another a café, and we had entirely different ideas about it. Instead, we placed a till, coins, paper bags and an empty shelf in the corner and asked them to fill the ‘shop’. They sold all sorts of odds and ends from the classroom and served muddy tea and play dough shapes for hours!
It needs to be ‘deconstructed’ play.
I learnt the lesson about trying to be in charge and over-structuring the theme of the roleplay. It needs to be general, or ‘deconstructed’, where the children lead the ideas and find, make and choose the agenda and props.
Early Years’ expert Alistair Bryce-Clegg advises that opportunities to explore both the fantastical and the familiar should always be available, he sees it from the child’s viewpoint “I cannot role play what I don’t know or can’t imagine. Therefore give me a role play space that allows me to revisit what I know, follow my interests and expand my imagination.”
What’s my role?
As we know, children learn by imitating, so the adult has a vital role in promoting and supporting imaginative play.
You can play in parallel with your own story near the group (using a small world character, accessory or puppet).
Join the children’s play (but don’t take over!) and model a new role play situation with an adult or some puppets. Add some novel items to the existing theme of the play and use the role play setting for adult-led sessions (e.g. coins for maths, or objects for phonics).
Don’t just leave it at that! Extend your home corner.
There is a place in children’s learning for the home corner, but don’t just leave it at that! Transform it into the unusual, the fictional, the extraordinary, with various ‘open-ended’ props and mystery objects. Change it into the setting for a fictional character, make it a home in a different location or turn back time! Make sure it is responsive to the children’s interests and requests and change it regularly. Inspire the children to think about ‘home’ in different ways, especially widen their experience of homes, and provide choice. There are lots of ideas about how to explore the concept of ‘Home’ in the #iamathome toolkit, open their eyes, plant a seed, let them choose and see where their imaginations take them!
- Bryce-Clegg, A (2015). Best Practice in the Early Years, Bloomsbury
- Flemmert, A (2005). https://www.lego.com/en-my/aboutus/news-room/2005/january/classic-playthemes-help-youngsters-explore-boundaries/ (as of 18.12.2017)