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Parents often listen in amusement as their little ones chatter up a storm with make-believe friends or puppets. Their children are engaging in dramatic play. What child doesn't flourish in the world of fantasy? Play is often underestimated as a way to encourage child development, but it's something that parents should value and support. Listen, observe and intervene to extend the learning process.
Dramatic play is not just for young children, either. Theater is a required subject through eighth grade at Léman Manhattan Preparatory School in New York City, according to Mariah Sanford-White, the school's performing-arts department chair. "It's not because we expect all students to become actors, but because we expect all students to grow up to become clear, confident communicators who can collaborate with others, problem-solve with ease, and consider the entire world a source of inspiration."
Developmental psychologists call the age of 3 the "early childhood age," according to Dr. Gayathri Narashimham, a professor of developmental psychology at Peabody College, part of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. This is when children begin to engage in role-playing games. Their socio-dramatic play implies that they understand how different characters behave. For example, the "mom" makes the food and takes care of the children, the "baby" cries and the "dad" goes to the office. Children use the information they have learned from television programs or observing people around them.
When children engage in make-believe, they have to direct their actions. For example, they tell themselves what to do first, and then they carry out their intentional actions and stay on top of how others are participating in the situation. This internal speech helps children develop language skills as they listen and use instructions, says Narashimham. Have you ever heard your child using a word you didn't realize she knew? She's building a vocabulary by transferring what she hears in her environment.
Theatre and dramatic play help with language acquisition at any age. Through improvisational play, kids experiment with different modes of communication, try out new vocabulary words, and acquire vocal inflection tools and the skills necessary for healthy speech production. "I have watched young children overcome speech impediments through dramatic play, and I currently am teaching English-language learners who say that our improvisational games are helping them learn English," says Sanford-White.
When children engage in dramatic play, they learn to control impulses and feel for others. Dramatic play encourages empathy and teamwork, says Sanford-White. If a child is pretending to be another person, such as a dad or a fireman, he has to figure out not only how that person moves and talks, but also how he thinks. Being able to consider another person's feelings and point of view is crucial in the real world.
If the child playing "mom" doesn't attend to the crying baby, she's quickly asked to do so. Thus, children must act against their impulses and regulate their behavior in order to carry on with the imaginary role, Narashimham points out. Children will typically carry this self-control over to other areas.
Children have decisions to make when they engage in dramatic play. It involves the cognitive ability to plan an activity, review, decide to carry out the plan, and evaluate the consequences, says Narashimham. Kids have to ask themselves, "Which material should I use to build the castle?" or "Who is going to play the doctor?" They use abstract thinking, recalling images in their minds of scenes such as a mother setting a table. In the process, they are problem-solving, planning, organizing and building a basis for math, literacy and other academic areas.
When a child is the fireman and he "puts out a fire," he is using gross-motor skills and building strength. Fine-motor skills are also developed in activities like feeding the baby. When kids put away play materials, they rely on eye-hand coordination and dexterity. Overall fitness is enhanced in dramatic play.
Although interaction isn't required in all dramatic play, cooperation is at the forefront of socio-dramatic play. Children learn to take turns and assign and accept roles: "You can be the mother, and I'll be the doctor." They step out of their egocentric beings and walk in another person's shoes. They interact with peers and learn to give and take. Since they're trying on new roles, they have less fear of new situations.