The Case for Dramatic Play

Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from parents who are interested in my company’s Preschool Prep program and who see this idea in various preschool programs. They ask me, “What is Dramatic Play, and why is it necessary in preschool programs?” “Why does my son’s classroom have such elaborate play centers?” “Why does it matter?” In terms of literacy… it can matter quite a lot!

Firstly, Dramatic Play is a set space and time in which teachers allow for activities that include dress up, play sets that mimic life experiences, and guided prompts from teachers. In Dramatic Play, teachers and students strengthen their oral language skills and social development, and encourage students to use their imaginations to solve puzzles, create language, and determine the social nuances needed for the situation.

Excell and Linington (2011) assert that play activities are crucial in developing the implicit pathways to literacy that are present in perceptual- motor skills (a child’s developing ability to interact with his environment by combining the use of the senses and motor skills) and sensorimotor integration (the capability of the central nervous system to integrate different sources of stimuli, and to transform such inputs in motor actions).They cite the use of well planned, good quality play (Wood, 2009) to stimulate and link the neural pathways between these motor skills and literacy development. A pedagogy of play must include not only free play and spontaneous movement activities, but also structured, purposeful guided movement experiences designed to support specific aspects of gross motor, fine motor, and perceptual motor development, which thus lends itself to early literacy development (2011). The benefit of a pedagogy of play is that it is flexible, and that teachers are expected to link these movement-based activities with multiple literacy facets, such as oral language, communication, and critical thinking skills. A pedagogy of play and movement can help students strengthen, for example, the link between visual and auditory memory (being able to remember what is seen or heard) and the link between a letter and its sounds (Excell & Linington, 2011).

Excell and Linington’s Perceptual Motor Develppment and Behaviors Supporting Links to Literacy

With Dramatic Play, students not only have fun dressing up and playing with toy sets, they are also learning how to manipulate the toy sets based on norms set by the teacher, and by previous experiences they’ve witnessed at home. For example, with a kitchen set, students know that they have to turn on the “Oven” in order to cook the food. In most cases, the students have witnessed their parent cooking, or the teacher has given them the instruction to turn on the oven and cook. With guided instruction, students learn how to manipulate tools and social situations through these Dramatic Play sessions. Teachers should also be sure to use oral instruction and important vocabulary during these play sessions so that the students’ oral development skills are growing, and they are learning to associate certain vocabulary words with specific situations. For more instruction on integrating vocabulary in oral instruction, view this video here.

Many teachers take the opportunity to integrate literacy skills in Dramatic Play by giving the students a task to complete, and then creating literacy cards or worksheets that supplement the task. For example, when creating a Flower Shop, this teacher integrated math and literacy by providing different baskets with flowers, flowerpots, seeds, and a set space to plant a “garden”, complete with a cash register and receipts. Not only does this Dramatic Play sequence integrate math, it also requires them to write down the final product for the recipient, and it puts the students in the roles of consumer and shop owner, so that they can learn the social interactions that come with buying something at the shop. Providing clip boards, sticky pads, or forms (real or created) enhance the natural connection between play and the written word (Writing in the Dramatic Play Center). 

Parents and Home school teachers can benefit easily from engaging in structured Dramatic Play with their children. Reading a story with your child, and then providing the Dramatic Play center based around the book’s theme helps to integrate their Giving your children ample opportunities to dress up and integrate literacy and writing in everyday situations helps prepare students not only for reading and writing in the long run, but also for their social-emotional development and their attention to understanding the world around them. Dramatic Play is a beneficial opportunity to teach students about social situations that may be complicated or uncomfortable, and act out possible solutions to problems. For example, Greg Hogben @MyDaughtersArmy retweeted a post on Tumblr last year that had many parents singing praises.

The parent in question had taken an overused and uncomfortable trope (Princesses who need to be saved) and transformed it through the use of excellent and guided dramatic play. This father knew that there was more to being a princess than simply dressing up in cute outfits, and he took the opportunity to use his daughter’s love for princesses to teach her how to be a leader, a negotiator, and a strategist. This is the magic of Dramatic Play- using your imagination and theirs to counter and question, and to develop critical thinking through the magic of pretend.

For more on how to use dramatic play in your classroom and at home, visit Teaching2and3yearolds and


Excell, L., & Linington, V. (2011). Move to literacy: Fanning emergent literacy in early childhood education in a pedagogy of play. South African Journal of Childhood Education, 1(2), 27-45.

Author: Elise TC

Fantasy Literature Scholar and Literacy Educator MA: Teachers College Columbia University and Signum University

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