Dramatic Play

First, the Turtlewings meeting was wonderful. I met Julianne, who runs the organization, and her husband Peter. I'm looking forward to working with them -- we're talking about doing something with the preschool where I work starting in the spring; and my plan is to keep on attending the monthly Turtlewings meetings.

Now, dramatic play. As a university student, I learned that dramatic play is a center in the early childhood classroom that many people refer to as "dress up". There is also a wide tendency to call it the "kitchen area", I have noticed, most likely because it is typically equipped with child-sized cooking appliances. This, this, and this have all been in past classrooms of mine, and in most preschool classrooms.

I was at a workshop hosted by the University Child Development School in Seattle last spring, and Lella Gandini (from Reggio Emilia) was there, speaking about classroom environments. She said that when she and some other Italian educators first visited the United States, they wondered if everyone got their furniture and supplies from the same place, because all of the classrooms were exactly the same. Everyone in the room chuckled, out of truth and guilt.

What people need to see is that those do not authentically reflect a child's home, life, or interests. They are toys. They are not open-ended. They leave no room for creativity.

And even if you are trying to make your dramatic play area a place where children can go more in depth on a project, and it should be a kitchen, yellow plastic pots and fake stove burners are not going to inspire the children. Dramatic play should allow children to be open-ended and self motivated; and is should reflect their own lives and interests. If it is going to be a kitchen, try to fill it with containers that children would see in their own pantry at home; or with real dishes to prepare a table with.

In my first year of teaching, we would change the dramatic play area according to childrens' interests and the project or topic of study. In my recollection, it was four things over the course of the year: a kitchen, a store, a doctor's office, and a restaurant. The children were engaged in each one, but it was always a magical room transformation for them -- they would arrive on a Monday morning to new props, items, and furniture arrangement. Should children have more of a say in the arrangement of their classroom environment? I think dramatic play may be a good place to try that out.

Our dramatic play area has had one transformation already -- from a tiny area of just a coat rack and a table to a larger place for children to play. On Friday, five "kitties"and one "Mommy cat" were the center of dramatic play action. The area is open-ended, in my opinion -- there are chairs, mirrors, scarves, natural items, our fabulous painted tree stump, animal masks, and small materials like buttons, leaves, straws, paper, and pencils. These things can come and go as well -- nothing has to be permanent. But a child who wants to play as a fox does not have to be discouraged because there is just a toy kitchen -- each child can make it what they want it to be right now.

With "dress up clothes", I again am not one to close off possiblities. And, not to hack on Lakeshore, but these are plastic and polyester play costumes. I would much rather give children the opportunity to use their imaginations -- that is why we use scarves in our classroom. A nice addition, though, would be different kinds of materials, in a variety of sizes, that children can spread and fold and experiment with, or wrap around their heads, waists, feet, or whatever they are inspired to do.

Dramatic play is very popular in our classroom, and I think I will take that opportunity to allow the children to help plan how it should evolve. Our recent conversations about bats, birds, and mud can be our jumping off point.

It is not (and will not be) a carbon copy of someone else's idea for dramatic play. I have gotten many great ideas from other teachers and implemented a version in my classroom, but we're not going to make microphones out of toilet paper tubes unless the children collaborate on/ think of the idea.

So look in the corner of your classroom and ask yourself: is it dramatic play? Or is it dress up?