Pretending (socio-dramatic play) is very important for young children. When they are playing imaginatively with other children they are practising communicating and negotiating; they are experimenting with symbols (so essential for language development), being creative and practising problem solving. All of these skills are fundamental for their ongoing development.
If you are looking at children’s socio-dramatic play, the things to watch for are the kinds of roles they play and how they perform these roles (a child who plays “mum” by giving “dad” child a briefcase and telling him to go out to work is telling us something about experiences of gender roles). You can also look for the way children use imagination to make objects into something else (a cardboard tube becomes a machine gun or a telescope), persistence (how long the play scenario lasts and what children do to maintain and progress it) and their metacommunication skills (how they use language to organise the play, identify the rules, and sort out who does what and how).
We expect that children engage in this kind of play from a young age and by the time they are around four they are able to do so for 5-10 minutes at a time before the play breaks down.
Different kinds of environments provoke different kinds of socio-dramatic play. A cubby house often prompts domestic play which might include cooking, looking after baby or shopping. Recent research suggests that outdoor environments are particularly useful in creating space for a wider range of socio-dramatic play. Open-ended materials and natural enclosures in the outdoors provoke richer socio-dramatic play than manufactured outdoor equipment.
Recent research from Melbourne showed that the more natural the outdoor space, the longer children’s socio-dramatic play lasted. Children in these naturalised spaces engaged in more complex fantasy roles, extending beyond merely acting out normal domestic routines and activities. In these spaces, children were more likely to practice their communication and metacognitive skills as they constructed more detailed fantasy play scripts, collaborating in constructing a pretend world and the rules by which that pretend world operated.
Loose elements such as sand, leaves, bark, sticks, stones, pine needles and pinecones offer children opportunities to use their imagination in creating other “objects” for their play (sand becomes the ingredients used to make a birthday cake or the magic dust that transforms a child into a dinosaur). Research suggests that the more loose elements available to children the more creative and complex their socio-dramatic play.
Other research shows that carefully constructed pathways (not necessarily permanent ones) create opportunities for children to move from one outdoor space to another and this supports their ability to engage with other children in building collaborative play scenarios. Quiet spaces provide opportunities for seclusion and research shows children playing in these spaces are more likely to be absorbed in their play. These spaces provide relief from busy noise (vegetation and soft surfaces are particularly noise absorbent) and children in these quiet spaces are more able to communicate with each other, which helps them develop their imaginative play scenario.
Providing space and opportunities for children’s socio-dramatic play is essential and we are lucky in Armidale to have a range of outdoor spaces where children can use their imagination and create for themselves a rich and exciting imaginative world.
Providing space and opportunities for children’s socio-dramatic play is essential and we are lucky in Armidale to have a range of outdoor spaces where children can use their imagination and create for themselves a rich and exciting imaginative world. Now that we are into spring, families can take advantage of these.