The Power of Dramatic Play and the Toys to Promote It

There are those that see no real value in playing.  To them, I say nonsense! One of the most important ways kids learn is through playing, especially by role-play or pretend play. The practice of “imitative play” is fundamentally significant in the early development of:
  • Communication skills
  • Problem solving and thinking skills
  • Social skills (including sharing, courtesy, complex interactions, cooperation, leadership, negotiation, appropriate behavior, self-discipline and self-control)
  • Emotional skills (as they play out different scenarios of emotions)
  • Practical life skills
  • Creativity
  • Sense of worth and self-confidence

Children, especially younger ones, love (and actually need) to imitate those around them – that’s how they learn best, by doing.  Though it might seem redundant and even boring to adults, kids actually have the need to act out different situations and meticulously practice them over and over again. Role-playing helps children figure out and process the world around them. As they explore and practice various roles, they often find the things they are good at and enjoy.  Plus, accomplishing these seemingly trivial tasks over and over again helps build their self-confidence.

How do you nurture imaginative play?

The first step is to unplug – the television and computer are not the best resources for sparking creativity and they certainly do nothing to create the right atmosphere.  Instead, here are a few ideas:

  • Read books
  • Tell stories
  • Put on a puppet show
  • Play drive-thru window at the playground
  • Play dolls
  • Make something with your hands (whether with play-dough, sand, paper mache or paint)
  • Play superhero
  • Build towers and cities out of blocks or Legos
  • Hand them a bunch of bowls, whisks and water and “make” something
  • Build a fort out of pillows, sheets and/or cardboard boxes
  • Play house, grocery store, office, doctor or any other “real world” scenario
  • Use various “instruments” around the house (including empty paper towel tubes) to make a band

You can also encourage role-play by having them help you around the house (cleaning or cooking). I can’t stress how important it is to allow your kids to watch you work and even help out.  Having them help you may be time consuming and even a downright frustratingly painful process, but it develops those necessary skills, teaches them practical life skills, build memories and creates good attitudes about chores and a healthy work ethic. (As an added bonus, if you nurture that desire now, it might bless you with a “helper” in years to come.)

Every time I get out my cleaning supplies to clean the house, both of my kids just about trample over one another to help out.  As they get out their kid-sized broom, vacuum and own cleaning sprays and supplies, I give them specific areas to wipe down.  And when I am cooking, my daughter comes running after me to help.

Most children don’t need any prompting when it comes to pretend play (they can take a rock and turn it into just about anything), but it does help to create a few opportunities by providing them with the necessary tools.  Things like costumes and hats, as well as play kitchens, train sets, blocks, empty boxes and tubes of various sizes, dolls and dollhouses set the scene for imaginative play and are all-time favorites in our home.

Cardboard washer and dryer

Camping out by the “fire” and eating marshmallows

teepee city

Train engine made from cardboard boxes

Making cardboard cookies

My favorite toys are actually wooden toys designed for dramatic play, the play kitchen being my personal favorite. Doing things like preparing food enhances fine motor skills (hand-eye coordination and control). We keep our play kitchen in our kitchen, which is where I would recommend placing yours, if at all possible.  That way, kids can watch and imitate by parallel working, or doing it side-by-side (you in your kitchen and your child in hers). When I am in a rush to get dinner on the table, instead of turning down the offer to “help” me with cooking, I give m daughter a recipe card of her own, a few instructions and suggest her to help in her own kitchen with her own set of tools and wooden play food.  She loves it and feels so needed and important.  This type of parallel work saves my sanity in so many ways while still satisfying her need to imitate and help.

Tip: In whatever toys and tools you decide, to ensure success for the child, opt for child-size or miniature versions of real adult household items. Adult versions are too big for their tiny hands and chunky sausage fingers, often leaving them with a sense of frustration rather than accomplishment.  Although tasks are often a good way to teach kids about how to handle their emotions (frustration, anger, sadness, and so forth), size issues should not be the source of it.

In your search for the perfect holiday gift, instead of more electronic devices, consider toys that engage your children in pretend play and promote use of their imagination. And don’t throw out those big boxes that they came in!



  1. 2
    Jennifer Young says:

    I love, love, love the washer and dryer! I just got rid of a ton of boxes yesterday and wished I would have seen this earlier, lol! We do tons of dramatic play in our house. My girls have about 30 costumes that they wear of all different kinds of thing- police officer, nurse, firefighter, cook, etc. It’s their favorite thing to do. I always buy a couple every year on clearance after Halloween!

  2. 3

    Jennifer, that’s a great idea! My kids are not so much of the dress up type, but maybe if we had more costumes available, they would. Thanks for the idea of buying on clearance after Halloween!


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