6 tips to dramatic play outdoors

How to inspire dramatic play in themed playgrounds - and increase language stimulation and play retention.

By Jeanette Fich Jespersen, Head of KOMPAN Play Institute

Imagination in children

Humans have an ability that set us miles apart from other species: we can imagine. This is a gift that makes possible visions of a better world, and eventually a play-plan to achieve a better life for all. This cognitive force is learned and appreciated already from very early on, through play.

The newest research indicates infants, before they can speak, can take in advanced cognitive and social-emotional learning through make-believe play, or dramatic play because the ability to imagine is there long before language.

Dramatic play

Dramatic play, make-believe play, pretend play, role play, imaginative play, and fantasy play: there are many names for this beloved play behaviour of younger children. The ability to imagine in play spans a variety of play behaviours: from the mammal rough-and-tumble play fights to elaborate role play; from the open-ended, mimicking story making trials of younger toddlers to the meticulously staged and character casted games of older children.

In my play observations, I have seen children from 1 year engage in make-believe play, selling ice cream and paying for it, mimicking older peers. I have also witnessed 12-year old native Danish children mastering convincing British accents when playing characters from the television programme Britain’s got talent.

Language benefits

Dramatic play, however, plays the biggest role in the development of younger children. The research states that make-believe play increases children’s cognitive skills, mainly in increasing the ability to express wishes and plans through spoken language and communication.

Dramatic play also increases children’s understanding of social-emotional dynamics, such as turn-taking. Children with less developed language skills can elaborate on their spoken language with dramatic play. Children under stress can be relieved of pressure through playing out events that don’t make sense or are hurtful to them.

How to motivate dramatic playground play

There are several ways to motivate or support dramatic play in outdoor playgrounds. Based on the play observations in the KOMPAN Play Institute, we recommend the following 6 considerations for promoting dramatic play and harvesting the benefits of play attraction, play retention and beneficial support of language and communication as well as social-emotional skills:

  • Motivate role play with intriguing themes: animals, houses, shops, traffic, and fairytales are easily transferred to children’s lived experiences and easier to start talking about. A car-theme is understood by most ages and opens the possibility of imagining going out into a wider, unknown world. When supporting play, care givers or parents can initiate the widening of the vocabulary: “Are you driving the car? Where are you going? Are you going to visit your grandparents?
  • Increase play duration by adding intriguing elements such as mirrors, bells and manipulative activities such as turnable plates or auditive stimulation with music panels.
  • Increase play benefits by combining your themed setting with physical play activity also, for instance slides or climbing opportunities.
  • Increase play duration by adding space and opportunity for breaks – for instance by having a patio with seating in a play house, or table and benches inside it.
  • Increase the possible user numbers by offering play equipment designs that have more access and exit points and feature activities that span both inside and outside, for instance turntables or funnels. When there is no rear side to a design, the children can play house, car, or other themes from the outside , too.
  • Increase the user age and ability span and accessibility by offering all of the above at ground level.

 

Sources

Department for Education (2016) Early Years Foundation Stage Profile. DfE

Jespersen, J .F .and Magnussen, S., (2019) Play Value Increases with Sensory Play Features, KOMPAN Play Institute whitepaper

Lillard A, Lerner M, Hopkins E, et al. (2013) The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence. Psychological Bulletin 139(1): 1–34.

Skolnick D, Ilgaz H, Hirsh-Pasek K, et al. (2015) Shovels and swords: How realistic and fantastical themes affect children’s word learning. Cognitive Development (35): 1–14

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