Volume 10 Number 2
©The Author(s) 2008
Introduction to the Special Section on Dramatic Play
This special section of Early Childhood Research and Practice features two practitioner perspectives on children’s involvement in dramatic play. Dramatic play, socio-dramatic play, symbolic play, pretend play—these varied terms describe interrelated phenomena well known to those who work with young children. The terms all refer to play that involves “pretending” or the use of symbols that “stand in” for that which is real: one child “becomes” a dog and another child its “owner”; a puppet “speaks” for a child; a pile of blocks represents a cave for bears. Though the vital importance of such play is widely accepted among child development specialists and early childhood practitioners, recent developments in early care and education policy appear to reflect a devaluing of play in general, especially in schools and other out-of-home settings for young children. Official concern over “school readiness” appears to have led to an increase in hours spent on academic pursuits in many programs, with a reduction in the amount of time available for dramatic play.
The two articles in this section are evidence that such play remains an integral part of some classrooms. In “At the Zoo: Kindergartners Reinvent a Dramatic Play Area,” Mary Bowne and kindergarten teacher Sue Brokmeier describe how adults in a South Dakota kindergarten responded to the interest in animals that children expressed in their play, encouraging the children to transform the entire classroom into a space for pretend play about animals while at the same time providing opportunities to investigate actual animals and zoos. Indiana educator Kelli Servizzi, in her narrative “‘Fixing Puppets So They Can Talk’: Puppets and Puppet Making in a Classroom of Preschoolers with Special Needs,” recounts what took place when she brought puppets and puppet making into two groups of preschool-age children diagnosed with a variety of special needs.
Together, the two articles offer food for thought regarding several important questions being addressed in the general scholarly and professional literature on children’s play:
- What understandings, feelings, and behaviors are involved in children’s dramatic play?
- What are some optimal roles for adults in children’s dramatic play, particularly for classroom teachers?
- What educational purposes can dramatic play address in early childhood settings, both for typically developing children and for children with special needs?
In the following sections, we discuss some of the ways in which these two practitioner papers may inform our answers to these questions.
Understandings, Feelings, and Behaviors Involved in Dramatic Play
Recognizing and engaging in pretense (e.g., in dramatic play) appears to involve an intricate set of activities and understandings (see, for example, a discussion in Friedman & Leslie, 2007; also German & Leslie, 2001, Harris & Kavanaugh, 1993, Lillard, 2001, Nichols & Stich, 2000; Rakoczy, 2008; Howes, 1992; Bretherton, 1984). The two featured narratives in this special section—from classrooms in which dramatic play is encouraged—can provide additional insights into children's theories of mind, their magical thinking, and their understandings of their own and others' mental states.
Ms. Servizzi’s observations of her preschoolers’ dramatic play involving puppets, for example, suggest some of the cognitive complexity involved in the children’s activity. The preschoolers’ interactions with puppets hint at some dissonance in children’s understandings of how puppets are animated: The children showed some awareness that puppets were not actually alive, but at times they acted as if the puppets operated under their own volition. On the other hand, they had multiple opportunities to create puppets themselves from a variety of materials and clearly were the agents of animation for and communication through those puppets. Others who have used puppets with children have noted similar contradictory ideas. Bromfield (1989), for example, wrote of an autistic boy who during puppet therapy indicated that he knew the puppet was not “real,” though at other times the boy’s comments indicated his magical thinking about the puppet.
For several decades, research and professional literature have addressed various therapeutic uses of puppets with young children (see, e.g., Visintainer & Wolfer, 1975; Zahr, 1998; Epstein, Stevens, McKeever, Baruchel, & Jones, 2008; Bromfield, 1989; Gronna, Serna, Kennedy, & Prater, 1999). Substantial evidence exists that the pretending involved in puppet play enables children to heal from trauma, prepare to face frightening situations, and compensate for social-emotional difficulties. It appears, however, that little if anything has been written about the creation of puppets by children who might otherwise be receiving puppet therapy (e.g., children with communicative disorders, children undergoing invasive medical procedures, or children recovering from trauma). Searches of several academic databases located no such literature. If observing or participating in puppet play (scripted or unscripted) can be beneficial to children in certain situations, it is worth posing the question, "What might we construe about children's cognition and affect from observations made while they construct and then play with puppets of their own creation?"
Optimal Adult Roles in Children’s Dramatic Play
Possible roles for adults in children's dramatic play have been examined and discussed in research and professional literature (see, e.g., Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990; Jones & Reynolds, 1992; Harley, 1999; Dau, 1999; Kontos, 1999; Ashiabi, 2007; Lindqvist, 2001; Brown, Odom, & Conroy, 2001). Experience suggests that in many programs serving young children the teacher's role in pretend play often consists of setting aside space, providing props, and making time in the schedule for such play. In others—including the classrooms described in the two articles in this special section—teachers take a more active role. Both articles in this special section reveal the teachers taking on facilitative roles that are both complex and intentional.
In the kindergarten classroom described by Dr. Bowne and Ms. Brokmeier, the adults’ initial goal was to increase language/literacy-related activity in the dramatic play area. Observation of the children’s play early on was meant to help the teacher decide what might be done to support incorporation of language and literacy. As the adults noted that the children’s pretend play about animals was becoming prominent, Ms. Brokmeier’s focus changed somewhat. She became interested in enabling the children to transform the dramatic play area into something that supported their focus on being or owning pets. This goal led her to locate and share some resources related to animal care (hosting a visit from a veterinarian, reading aloud from a book about pets). Sensitivity to the children’s interests eventually allowed her to encourage the creation of a classroom zoo populated by toy animals and by children pretending to be animals and zookeepers. Her roles included not only setting aside time, space, and materials but also facilitating the children's use of additional informational resources about zoos and animals. Use of information from secondary sources augmented and enriched the children’s dramatic play; the dramatic play fueled interest in information gathering. Ultimately, Ms. Brokmeier’s class planned and hosted an event for families during which they shared the fruits of both their investigations and their pretend play.
Ms. Servizzi took a different approach to her role in the children’s dramatic play. The introduction of puppets into her classes grew out of her curiosity: What might the children do with puppets? She began by allowing the children to explore ready-made puppets that she placed in a container on the floor. As the children acquainted themselves with the puppets, Ms. Servizzi observed their activities and decided to model some uses of puppets. She showed some of the children alternatives to the play fighting in which they were engaged with the puppets. An assistant read books aloud to groups of children, employing a puppet to voice the stories. Ms. Servizzi also enabled the preschoolers to explore and use a commercially made puppet stage. She noted how the children dealt with such things as placement of their bodies during improvised puppet shows, being audience members, and interacting with peers to create shows. Later, by introducing a variety of puppet-making materials and techniques, Ms. Servizzi provided the class with opportunities to become creators as well as users of dramatic play materials (specifically, puppets).
Educational Purposes of Dramatic Play
The importance of dramatic play in all domains of young children's development is well documented (see, e.g., Hughes, 1999, Burns & Brainerd, 1979; Favazza & Odom, 1997; Iannotti, 1978, Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990, Bodrova & Leong, 2005). Its potential for addressing academic goals in school settings has also received some attention in the scholarly and professional literature (see, e.g., Bodrova, 2008; Barnett, Jung, Yarosz, Thomas, Hornbeck, Stechuk, & Burns, 2008). Some authors have noted a close relationship between various types of dramatic play and specific curricular areas for typically developing children and those with special needs (see, e.g., Oliver & Klugman, 2006; Kim, 2005; Paley, 1987, 1998, 2005; Bhroin, 2007, Bray & Cooper, 2007; Brown, Remine, Prescott, & Rickards, 2000; Brown, Prescott, Rickards, & Paterson, 1997; Salmon & Sainato, 2005; Selmi & Rueda, 1998).
It is worth noting some of the specific ways that, in either situation, the teachers’ encouragement of dramatic play appears to have supported the growth of skills and knowledge across the curriculum. Dramatic play thus became a springboard for investigating play materials, art materials, peers’ ideas, and the world beyond the classroom.
Language Arts and Literacy
Children’s oral language skills were supported on multiple occasions in both classrooms, through conversation, negotiation, and role taking. Animating their various puppets provided the preschoolers with multiple opportunities to communicate with others through the spoken word. While creating their classroom zoo, Ms. Brokmeier’s kindergartners participated in brainstorming, group meetings, reporting their findings to peers and adults, and a variety of other activities that involved giving voice to their ideas and listening to peers. The kindergartners also had many opportunities to either put their own ideas into writing or to have an adult do so for them—contributing to lists, making signs for the cages, creating invitations to the Zoo Grand Opening. In both classrooms, activities related to reading had important roles. Adults read stories aloud to the preschoolers in Ms. Servizzi’s classes, sometimes using puppets as “readers,” sometimes not. Adults also read aloud to the kindergartners, apparently with a focus on secondary sources of information about animals and zoos, and some children read independently from those secondary sources, as well.
The children in Ms. Brokmeier’s kindergarten class gained experience in using reliable secondary sources for research. They became familiar with the use of the SmartBoard and an interactive Web site for the San Diego Zoo. They located information about the characteristics and survival needs of animals, and they applied that knowledge to the construction of their clay models of animals and their habitat models. Ms. Servizzi’s preschoolers had opportunities to learn the properties of a variety of materials such as paper, cellophane, and glue; to use technologies such as scissors and the overhead projector; and to experiment with light and shadow.
For Ms. Brokmeier’s kindergarten class, sorting the toy animals (e.g., by kind of animal, by type of habitat needed) was an important step in organizing the classroom zoo. Spatial knowledge played a significant role in the evolution of the zoo; the kindergartners addressed several problems related to area and volume, including what to do with the large number of toy animals that were crowded into parts of the room, what sizes the enclosures needed to be to suit the different animals, and how to set up the zoo so that guests could comfortably view and move among the various model habitats. Ms. Servizzi’s preschoolers also addressed problems of space and number, including figuring out how many children could fit safely and comfortably behind the puppet stage.
Ms. Servizzi’s preschoolers engaged in and observed puppet performances, and they used a variety of conventional and unconventional art materials to create their own puppets. The kindergartners in Ms. Brokmeier’s class used a variety of art materials to create animal habitats related to their pretend play; some also enacted dramatic roles in the context of the zoo open house. They also made clay models of animals.
Whether creating the puppets, the zoo habitats, or clay animals, preschoolers and kindergartners alike applied their fine motor skills and coordinated their movements to accomplish complex tasks. Some of the kindergartners, while enacting the roles of animals, used large motor skills to mimic the animals’ movements.
The preschoolers became aware of some roles for artists (specifically puppeteers) in communities; they experienced the puppeteers leading the puppet-making workshop as both entertainers and teachers. The kindergartners gained knowledge of the roles of zookeepers, veterinarians, and others who care for animals. They also participated in group decision making that involved discussion and voting as ways of making choices. Several of the kindergartners made maps of their classroom zoo, evidence that they were learning to locate objects in familiar environments.
The ability to engage in cooperative group play is important for children’s successful peer relationships. Reports from both classrooms reveal children effectively expressing their ideas, needs, and wants during their dramatic play and the work that supported it. Although expressing their own ideas through puppets was of great interest to the preschoolers in Ms. Servizzi’s class, their degree of attention for watching each others’ puppet shows was considerably lower. That observation led her to steer the children’s activities toward making puppets rather than putting together a class puppet show. Ms. Servizzi noted that the preschoolers showed considerable curiosity about puppetry and puppet making, and they seemed eager to participate in all puppet-related activities. Dr. Bowne and Ms. Brokmeier note that the kindergartners also exhibited curiosity and eagerness to take part in finding out about animals and zoos. The class appeared to have achieved a relatively high level of cooperation as they planned and helped implement the “Grand Opening” event for families, during which they could share their knowledge and work.
Readers who wish to follow these two practitioner narratives with scholarly and professional reading on the topic of dramatic play in the classroom may be interested in the reference list accompanying this introduction. We thank information specialist Nancy McEntire of the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting for her contribution to this list.
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