Steve Mynard looks at the place of drama in your setting and how existing practice can be enhanced.

Role-play occurs in all early years settings and forms an obvious route to the achievement of the early learning goal, ‘Use language to imagine and recreate roles and experiences’ (Communication, language and literacy).

Within Key Stage 1 there is an expectation that children will have opportunities to take part in drama activities as part of their development in the speaking and listening element of the curriculum for English.

Young children don’t need any encouragement to role-play. They do it all the time! The home corner, small world play, dressing up and acting out favorite stories are traditional and well established aspects of every early years setting. First let’s establish a couple of clear definitions.

Drama, in its specific dictionary definition, is the art of acting, of putting on a play. Drama to me is a general term embracing a variety of techniques that allow the individual to adopt a character and act out a story. Drama techniques allow the individual to experience aspects of life and relationships they would not normally experience; to become people they would not normally be and to tell a story alone or with others.

Role-play is a drama technique that involves adopting a specific role such as car mechanic or shop assistant. The individual engaged in role-play does the things that a person carrying out that role would do. They may dress as that person and use real or replica objects familiar to that person.

I make the distinction between the terms role-play and drama deliberately as I believe that role-play is the one drama technique that is of fundamental importance in the development of further drama skills. I will focus on role-play, why it is important and how we can provide for it in the early years setting.

Why is role-play important?

  • Role-play allows children to engage in, explore and learn about the everyday roles that occur in their familiar experience; the roles carried out by their parents or carers and members of their community.
  • Role-play allows children to express their emotions, positive and negative, in appropriate ways.
  • Role-play allows children to explore their own self-image and identity. It helps to build self esteem.
  • Role-play can nurture the development of skills (see box).

Practical role-play

The natural role-play that arises out of play in the early years is the starting point for much future drama work.

The home corner is one of the traditional places where role-play takes place. During free play children use the replica objects they are provided with to imitate activities they see happening around them in the adult world.

Having an adult in the home corner provides the opportunity to talk with the children about what they are doing. The adult can extend the range of role-play through making suggestions or asking questions to guide children towards discovery of other ways of tackling a task.

Dressing-up is another key way to encourage role-play. It is important to ensure that the contents of the dressing-up box reflect the cultural diversity of British society and do not channel children into stereotypical gender roles.

Small world play may seem less related to role-play as the child does not necessarily adopt a specific role themselves. We could say that small world play begins to allow children to extend their role-play onto other characters. Where a child is playing with cars, houses, shops and other facilities on a map mat this can provide the starting point for role-play through adopting characters involved in the play and exploring their relationships.

At this point children need to have specifically structured activities to guide and direct their learning in this important area.

Themed role-play areas in the setting stimulate children’s imagination and are another example of where a specific activity can be set up for children to explore. I once visited a reception classroom where the teacher had created a cave in the corner of the room complete with replica stalactites and stalagmites and real crystals. The teacher was encouraging the children to take on roles such as explorer, tour guide or visitor as they played in the cave.

Acting out a favorite story allows individual children to adopt individual roles and to immerse themselves fully in the story. We have now moved further away from free play role-play to the point where children are doing something much closer to the dictionary definition of drama.

And finally

When young children role-play they immerse themselves in the role; they become the person. It is important for us as adults to adopt this view of what children are doing. They are not pretending to drive a fire engine and put out a fire; they are driving a fire engine and putting out a fire. This total involvement in their role is the great joy of using role-play with young children.

Skills development

Practical life skills: Many everyday activities such as cooking, putting petrol in the car, having your hair done and so on have always been copied by young children. Mimicry is possibly the most fundamental learning skill that any of us has.
Social skills: Learning to share, take turns, cooperate, discuss, negotiate and problem-solve are all supported and encouraged by role-play.
Physical development: Play in all its forms is essential to the development of gross and fine motor skills. Role-play allows children to hone their dexterity and muscular definition for certain tasks.
Empathy and understanding: Children are strong on empathy. They see the emotions and feelings their peers are experiencing and can relate to these. Role-play supports this development.
Speaking and listening: Role-play encourages speaking and listening skills and leads to shared understanding, effective communication and cooperation.
Questioning: Questioning skills are important if children are to develop as independent learners. Young children need no encouragement to ask questions; they are naturally inquisitive and can drive us to distraction with their ceaseless questioning! Not all children, however, are encouraged to do this at home and some will be actively discouraged. This is where role-play in the early years setting becomes even more important.

Former headteacher, Steve Mynard, now runs Metaphor Learning, a company dedicated to promoting creativity and imaginative approaches to reintegrating the curriculum.