On the surface, it may seem like simple playtime. However, dramatic play is actually a great learning tool for children!
Games inspired by acting and the stage are perfect for two-year-olds, who are learning the differences between reality and imagination, how to play pretend, and the joys of making others laugh. Offering them a chance to “act,” with clear and easy rules, lets them perform for others and gives them a fun, low-stakes way of putting on a show. As children approach the three-year mark, they’re more and more able to engage in what’s called symbolic play: using objects to stand in for others (a banana as a phone, or a toy teacup as a real one). They aren’t yet able to get into truly imaginative play, because they can’t conceive of experiences they haven’t lived or seen—but there’s a whole world of pretend play available to them. In this blog, we’ll explain the different kinds of dramatic play and help you understand how to use it effectively at home to help your child continue learning and growing in a fun and engaging way!
What are Types of Dramatic Play?
There are two types of dramatic play. They are:
Structured Play: This is the kind of play where there’s a game plan for the kind of play that kids are engaging in. This could mean a teacher or parent has created a scenario that has a definitive end point. For example, maybe they’re shopping at a grocery store, shipping a package at the post office, or buying a bouquet at the flower shop. In these scenarios, there are defined roles that are dictated by the situation, and the play leads to a specific conclusion (for example, completing their purchase at the grocery store).
Unstructured Play: This form of dramatic play is more freeform and left up to the kids to choose how they want to play, and how—or even if—it ends. This is where the classic “floor is lava” scenario comes into play, but other examples might be pretend play like being a dinosaur stomping around the living room or using a spoon as a “magnifying glass” while hunting for butterflies in the basement.
Imaginary Dramatic Play Ideas
Kids playing doctor is a classic dramatic play idea that many of us remember from our own childhood.
But humans aren’t the only ones who need medical attention when they are sick! Consider changing things up and teaching your child about what vets do by helping them create a vet’s office. Who will the patients be?
All those stuffed animals on your child’s bed. Parker, the teddy bear, has a sore tummy; Ms. Panda bumped her head; and there’s something stuck in the elephant’s trunk!
Find a box, basket, or another container with a lid, and place one object at a time inside without letting your child see what it is:
Cup to drink from
Spoon or fork
A toy phone to talk on
Kitchen items like a small spoon or measuring cup
Makeup brush or a toothbrush
A packet of tissues
Demonstrate for your child by pulling out the object and playing pretend with it—“drink” from the bottle, “eat” the pretend food, “talk” on the play phone. Then put another object in without them seeing what it is, and have them pull it out and play pretend.
When you’re outside with your child—or even indoors watching a storm from the comfort of a warm room—notice branches waving, the rustling of the leaves, and the drips of rainwater forming on the window and sliding down. Help your child imitate the natural world around them in rhythmic ways, and if you’re able, try to get your own body moving as well:
Sway like a tree
Drip like water on a pane of glass (you can act like the window, and they can be the drops—then switch!)
Chirp the sounds of a bird
Drum (on any available surface) to the rhythm of the rain
Gobble up nuts like a squirrel
This dramatic play activity involves recreating a post office and helping your child discover the magic of old-school snail mail.
Set up a few “mailboxes” around your home for specific people, pets, and stuffed animals; they can be simple boxes or containers. You can put a mailbox by the dog’s bed, by mama’s desk, and by the dollhouse where their favorite doll lives. Hand your child some “letters” (junk mail, magazines, scratch paper) and ask them to deliver the mail. Kids at this age often love writing their own letters—even though the marks they make aren’t legible yet, encouraging them to “write” empowers them to think of themselves as writers
Mailbox play can help your child continue growing their reading and writing skills as they write, deliver, and read the letters themselves.
Tea parties are a classic for a reason: they can be done anywhere and anytime, and invite all kinds of pretend play!
Tea parties are special. They don’t happen every day so make it fancy with cloth napkins, fresh (or fake) flowers, a candle, and nice music. Invite all your stuffies and dolls! Making an effort to differentiate this from any other snack time will help build connections and memories.
You’re modeling positive social behaviors. Invite your child to participate by asking, “will you pass me a sugar cube, please” or “would you like another cookie,” using exaggerated manners yourself like holding your pinky out as you sip and then saying, “that’s delicious” will invite your child to imitate your actions.
You’re teaching your child to take another person’s perspective. As you model asking them if they’d like another cookie, sugar cube, or a refill in their cup, gently encourage them to ask you back. Once they get the hang of it, you’ll likely see them make offers like this in different situations.