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The Importance of Role Play

role play

Ask any nursery or reception teacher for an important area in their classroom and I bet they’ll say ‘the role play area’.

Whether it’s a castle or a home, a shop or a time machine, it has endless possibilities, and can really support a child’s creativity and imagination. 

Socio-dramatic play is role play where a child re-enacts a scenario they have witnessed or experienced. For example, children using a telephone automatically know how to greet someone and how to finish the call. They have been in the room when countless conversations have been had via telephone and have retained that information. In fact, when they were just a year or two old, you probably saw your child pick up the remote control and pretend that was a ‘phone too. Conversely, dramatic play is based on scenes from television and film. Role play in the early years tends to be a combination of the two.

In addition to obvious benefits of using one’s imagination and thinking creatively, role play can also help children develop other skills:

– To show empathy in a range of situations

 In a doctor’s surgery, children might take on the role of any staff members and show empathy and concern for others. It’s interesting when you see a child changing the way they respond depending on the role the other child has. 

– To solve problems

A home area is the perfect place to solve problems that we encounter on a daily basis. For example, how to make everything fit in the kitchen cupboards. I’m sure we could all use some help in that area, so let’s encourage the development of that skill in our children!

– To adapt language depending on the audience

Overhearing a child using a ‘mothering’ voice when talking to their friend who is pretending to be a baby or a louder, slower voice when explaining something to a friend who has taken on the role of an older person are fascinating experiences. It shows that our children absorb a lot from the world around them. Conversely, witnessing children shouting in their friends’ faces and wagging their fingers almost in their eyes can be somewhat traumatic. It gives an insight into what they may be seeing at home or the sort of programmes they watch on television.

– To understand others’ points of views

Taking on a different role and interacting with others whilst doing so can develop the skill of being able to see things from other people’s perspectives. We all know how easy it is to consider ourselves right in all scenarios. Role play can allow an insight into how other people think and might be feeling. Referring back to things children have acted out can be useful in reminding children how their friends could be feeling at certain times. In fact, mother of three, Becka Spencer, states that one of her children is undergoing assessment for additional needs and that role play “allows us to act out scenarios in a removed way and helps him understand why others may feel sad or angry at his actions.”

What does research show?

Research carried out by psychologist Sara Smilansky found that children, who are classified as ‘advantaged’, tend to “speak more, in longer sentences, and in longer utterances; use a higher percentage of nouns, adverbs, and numbers; use fewer adjectives, conjunctions, and pronouns; and have a richer vocabulary” (Smilansky, 1968). However, role play was found to have a positive impact on both ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ children. In fact, playing closely with peers, who have a stronger grasp of language, can support the less able child’s speech and language development.

What do EYFS practitioners think?

For Olivia Martin, role play provides “the building blocks of their creativity for when they later begin to write and build their own narratives in the more formal national curriculum.” Additionally, she has found that with her current class, having a role play area provided pupils with “the opportunity to develop their imagination and use role play to explore their insecurities of knowledge.”

Kim Branson, creator of the wonderful role play area pictured below, believes that role play allows children in her setting to “apply their knowledge of what they know or are learning. They develop and extend their communication skills and builds confidence.

Picture credit: Samantha Edwards

Nicola Kirkham found overwhelming benefits for one of her pupils whose confidence was low. He dressed up in the role play area, where then “he took on the world, as a dinosaur, a pirate or whatever character he wanted to be that day. His imagination took him everywhere.”

A nursery room supervisor, who wishes to remain anonymous, asserted that role play allows some of the children in her care to challenge the longstanding gender stereotypes that seem to have been passed from generation to generation. “No one bats an eyelid when a girl dresses in the doctor’s costume and the nurse working alongside her is one of the boys. It’s great to see that children not feeling as though they have to conform to gender stereotypes!” Reception teacher, Samantha Edwards is a huge believer in the power of the role play area, believing that “they immerse our children in their learning and offer ongoing opportunities to develop their vocabulary and confidence. Our role play area has helped develop children’s communication and language skills, personal social and emotional well being as well as nurture creative play.”

Picture credit: Samantha Edwards

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