Dramatic Play in Early Childhood

Spark Your Imagination…More Ideas for Pretend Play

Throughout this blog, I have talked about the themes for dramatic play only being limited to your imagination. But I also realize that a lot of time we adults need some help getting our imaginations going when it comes to thinking up new ideas continually. I recently found a list of dramatic play themes on a teaching website that has more ideas than I think one adult could ever think up alone.


With pretend play, it is really important to continue to give children new experiences and setups for them to role play and experience. In early childhood classrooms, these new setups are usually done in the dramatic play center. And at home, parents can suggest the ideas/scenarios and provide a few unique props to stimulate children’s dramatic play.


So take a look at this webpage of the many dramatic play themes to see what sparks your imagination! Just take a look at some of the great ideas they have listed for the letters A, B, and C:


Animal shelter
Art gallery
Artist’s studio
Author’s office



Beauty shop
Birthday party
Book Store
Buried treasure/pirate
Bus or train



Candy shop
Car wash
Chinese restaurant
Clown show
Covered wagon


And for each letter of the alphabet, the webpage gives a lot more fun ideas that kids would love enacting as part of a dramatic play activity!



Kohl, M. (2008). Dramatic play centre ideas. Retrieved October 25, 2008 from, http://www.canteach.ca/elementary/drama8.html




A Visual of Playing Pretend at Home

Hopefully, it is now pretty clear how important dramatic play can be for small children both at school and home. The following video shows a little boy named Cristian engaging in pretend play at home. What the video doesn’t outwardly say is that Cristian is on the autism spectrum. Throughout the video, Cristian’s mother interacts with and prompts her son’s play. And while some of Cristian’s actions may or may not be the result of his developmental disability, this is not the important issue to look at here.


What’s really important in this video is to see the immediate interactions and skill/knowledge practice the young child is having while playing pretend. It’s a good visual example of a child engaging in dramatic play at home!




Firewifesadie. (2008, September 21). Cristian cooking & serving mama [Video file]. Retrieved October 13, 2008 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtGJ022zUeI

Think Outside the House

I’ll be honest: most of the dramatic play centers I have seen in early childhood classrooms are setup like a house. In many cases, the setup may even be just a kitchen area, with the standard fake stove, refrigerator, food, and table. Meanwhile, some of these house-themed dramatic play centers go as far as to include dress-up clothes, dolls, and miniature furniture. And while such setups are a great start to a dramatic play center, there should also be variety!


In short, children need rich and varied experiences over time to learn and develop. This goes for dramatic play as much as it goes for any other subject area. A good dramatic play center should be changed fairly regularly (the norm, According to the Literacy and the Youngest Learner text, is every two-three weeks). You may want to change your dramatic play center based on your students’ interests, the themes you are teaching, or just a grand idea you come up with. One inspired teacher I knew used to change her dramatic play center regularly so she wouldn’t get bored; her student’s favorite theme: camp-out, complete with a mesh tent, pretend fire, and a little picnic table.


There are MANY possible themes and setups for a dramatic play center! The important things are that the environment is safe and fitting, with appropriate and assorted materials students can use for active and effectively pretend play.


Some really fun theme ideas and materials to include for dramatic play in early childhood classrooms can be found in Bennett-Armistead, Duke, and Moses’ book Literacy and the Youngest Learner. Some of my favorites from their ideas are:

  • Restaurant: include play food, aprons, chef hat, tables set for dining, play money, cash register, dress-up clothes, menu, cookbooks, order pads and pencils
  • Airplane: include windows that look out onto clouds, chairs in a row, headsets for pilots, steering wheels for pilots (can be just circles of cardboard affixed to a box with brads), small overnight suitcase with dress-up clothes, travel brochures, tickets, in-flight magazines and safety cards, name tags
  • Firehouse: include a phone, small hoses, fire truck created from a box, coats, rubber boots, fire hats, fake extinguisher, fire safety posters, maps
  • Bakery: include natural colored play dough (and some fun colors too!), cookie cutters, rolling pins, small pans, oven, aprons, cash register, play money, price list, cake boxes and cupcake holders, recipe cards
  • Veterinary Clinic: include stuffed animals, medical equipment (stethoscopes, gauze. Band-aids), white doctor coats (small adult button-down dress shirts work well), magazines for waiting room, appointment book, medical charts


So have fun and use your imagination when coming up with dramatic play center themes! Your students surely will when playing in the center!



Bennet-Armistead, V. S., Duke N. K., & Moses, A. M. (2005). Literacy and the youngest learner: Best practices for educators of children from birth to 5. New York: Scholastic.

An Example of What a Dramatic Play Center Can Look Like

Below are some pictures of an early childhood teacher’s dramatic play center. Take a look at the various types of materials and themes she has included for her students!




























Cooper. (2008). Dramatic play center. Retrieved October 19, 2008 from http://coopercornertx.tripod.com/dramaticplaycenter.htm


All About Dramatic Play in Video Form


In this video, Dr. Diane Horm discusses many important issues about dramatic play (which she also calls pretend play). In addition to providing thorough explanations of what pretend play is and why it is important, she outlines good toys to stimulate pretend play in school and at home, and explains the roles teachers and parents should take on with children involved in dramatic play. There is also a discussion of how dramatic play should be integrated into preschools and how such play experiences have a role in children’s academic success.


Not to mention, there are MANY examples of actual children involved in pretend play throughout the video. The examples will provide you with great concrete pictures of the many ways children engage in dramatic play.



TulsaWorldNews. (2008, August 14). Pretend play – tulsaword.com [Video file]. Retrieved October 13, 2008 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMwqMuRtGDs

What Is Dramatic Play?

To start with, dramatic play is an important part of early childhood development! As the Center for Best Practices in Early Childhood states on its website, the essence of this type of play involves “the portrayal of life as seen from the actor’s view”. Thus, for young children dramatic play is a fun and authentic way for them to participate in and practice roles that they know on their level. Or to use the Center for best Practices in Early Childhood’s words, it “permits children to fit the reality of the world into their own interests and knowledge.” In doing so, children are able to problem solve, work through conflicts, socialize, gain realistic experiences, and make sense of their environment.

Now that we’ve laid out a technical definition for dramatic play, let’s look at the practical question: what does dramatic play look like? Since dramatic play is an umbrella term that refers to various kinds of play where children act out roles, there are many ways for kids to take part in this experience. Examples include:

  • Setting up a scene (such as a kitchen or store) and playing the roles (pretending to be a parent, worker, etc)
  • Using puppets or dolls to tell a story
  • Using everyday props and dress-up clothes to take on roles they’ve seen
  • playing with toys (such as dolls, cars/transportation toys, play animals) where the child uses them to act out roles or stories

The important thing to remember is that since dramatic play is all about allowing children to use their imagination to come up with ways to role-play and portray life experiences, the possibilities are literally endless! There are so many props and physical arrangements that can extend themselves to dramatic play with young children. In future postings, I will lend some specific ideas about toys and setups that can be used in home and at school.


Center for Best Practices in Early Childhood. (2002, September). Dramatic play allows children to express themselves. Retrieved October 9, 2008, from http://www.wiu.edu/thecenter/art/artexpress/draplay.html