Why Role Play is such a powerful way to learn – from Dreaming to Becoming

Why Role Play is such a powerful way to learn – from Dreaming to Becoming

Role Play, also referred to as Play Pretend, Imaginative Play or Dramatic Play, is one of the most powerful approaches to support children’s understanding of the world, stimulate their creativity, and empower them to decide about the nature of their experiences. Creating a role play corner in your early years setting offers space for Child-Led Play which opens the door to self-regulation and life-long learning. It’s a perfect tool for all educators to effectively and consciously support children’s connection with their natural gifts and talents, foster their entrepreneurial spirit, and boost their self-confidence – the pillars of Future-Oriented Education.

Once it’s properly set up, it will serve your children for long as it can be used in many different ways depending on children’s creativity and current needs and preferences. It will also help you save time on planning as Role Play corners offer a solid long-term framework with plenty opportunities to not only support all areas of child development, but also help cover further cross-curricular learning goals. 

How Role-Play supports Future-oriented Education 

Children are masters of play pretend and they are capable of immersing themselves completely in the role they decide to embody. They identify themselves with and become one with the character of their choice, they fully live and breathe it. They allow themselves to be transposed to a different world where the identification of their choice helps them safely explore, navigate and learn about the world through the eyes of that character.

A full immersion in a given context also encourages children to take manageable risks – they can immediately take on characteristics, skills and superpowers of the person or phenomenon of their choice. Children feel as if they actually posses these qualities and perform and express themselves accordingly without fear and anxiety. This in turn helps build their confidence and children may feel more ready to later on transfer the qualities and skills of their imaginative character onto their own actual person.

This is a very powerful way to learn, explore one’s talents and cross boundaries to become a person who you wish or dream to be. And here’s a clear connection between imaginative play and Future-Oriented Education!

Role play allows children to safely and effectively move from dreaming of becoming someone to actually embodying certain qualities – not in a distant future but now! What a powerful way to learn and become!

future-oriented education early childhood

How Role Play supports child development

Role Play is a truly hands-on Experiential Learning approach that supports child’s development holistically. Nevertheless, it’s useful to be able to see how various areas of development can be positively affected by Play Pretend. This may help further understand the importance of role play corners in Early Years provision.

Creativity

Children can express themselves through Role Play on many levels. They can experiment with different clothing and costumes, objects of everyday life and the magical ones to transform themselves into characters they wish to become. They can also set the scene so that it reflects the context of their play, for example, by constructing a castle, a den, a house, a cafe etc. Apart from that, they come up with whole scenarios for their play reinventing and adjusting them on the go. They move from an imaginary world to the real one and mix the two worlds creatively. Finally, they will use their bodies, facial expression and speech or sounds to communicate within their play. 

Understanding of the World

Children observe adults and the world around them and try to make sense of their experiences. They will use their observations and current knowledge and understanding of the world in their role play often trying to reflect the real world, the characters, jobs, places, contexts, nature etc. They will share it with other children during their play and mix it with the imaginary world. Equipping a Role Play Corner with objects from every day life can enrich play and will add more realistic feel that will eventually help children develop certain practical skills. Children can learn how to use certain objects or tools, what it takes to perform certain jobs or functions or reinvent their functions. Having imaginary objects will add more magic, help inspire creativity and will keep the play light. Role plays are perfect for introducing cross-curricular and cross-cultural education.  

role play corner early childhood nursery
There is nothing more empowering for a child than deciding about the nature of their learning experiences

Empowerment 

There is nothing more empowering for a child than deciding about themselves and the nature of their experiences and Role Plays satisfies this need perfectly. Becoming a a knight, a firefighter, doctor or a princess, using real cups to drink, real pots to cook or wearing a wig and a fake beard is every child’s dream. Role Play gives a child the power to decide whom they want to be and plan the whole series of events and experiences that the character will go through. By doing this they gain control over the learning which is a massive confidence booster. Pretending to be an adult brings similar results. 

Cooperation, Social Skills and Communication

Even when a child plays alone, they usually talk to themselves or narrate voices for the accompanying imaginary characters. In Role Play there is always some sort of communication present no matter how many children play. This communication does not need to be verbal though and it will still serve its purpose, which is narrating the story and shaping the content of the play. By playing together children learn how to communicate positively working towards the same goal – keeping the play alive and adventurous. 

boy role play castle
In Role Play there is always some sort of communication going on no matter how many children take part in the experience.

Setting up a Role Play corner

This does not need to be difficult, time consuming or expensive. In fact, it can be very exciting both for educators and for children who can be invited to take part in the process. Instead of investing in ready-made theme based role-play corners (which you can also do if you wish) you can easily design your own using whatever is available and adding more items, structures or furniture later on. Role Play Corners are constantly evolving projects and you will add more and more inspiring items as your children begin to explore opportunities these corners offer. By observing them play you will find out what items they may wish you to add and children will also often guide or ask you directly. You may use recycled items providing they are clean, do not pose any danger of injury or cross-infection and can be safely enjoyed by children. All it takes is knowing a few principles and being creative!

Room or corner

If you can dedicate an entire room towards a certain Role Play Theme, then it’s just great. For example, you may decide to turn one of your playrooms into a Construction Play Area and fill it with play sand and construction play items. If you cannot though, then finding a spacious corner in your playroom should be enough.  As role play is a creative activity you may soon notice that the actual play does not need to occur in the initially dedicated play area but move on to other areas of your play room, which is a natural thing to happen. Leave some space for children to create their own dens and houses and make sure you offer resources such as fabrics, rugs, cushions to allow them to do so.

construction role play corner
Construction Role Play Corner – you can design your own theme-based play corner using resources already available or recycled items that are clean and safe to use

Themes

You may organise your corners according to themes for easier play organisation, space management, browsing and inspiration. Observe what works best with children but usually the following are popular with all kids: 

  • family play
  • knights, dragons, castles & princesses
  • fire fighters or police station
  • cooking/kitchen 
  • shop, restaurant
  • doctor, vet, hospital 
  • car repair 
  • construction/building play
  • post office
  • fashion show, travel
  • pirates, treasure hunters

Costumes, clothes and fabrics

Variety is a must – mix ready made costumes with loose parts such as clothing items, fabrics, shawls, blankets and accessories. Display them on the clothes racks or in boxes for easy browsing. Have some modern and some old fashion clothing items, variety of colours, fabrics and textures. Make sure items reflect cross-cultural variety. All objects, toys and clothing items should be regularly cleaned and washed, should be free from strings, sharp and small easily to swallow elements to ensure safe play

role play corner girl playing doctor
To add more realistic touch and to promote independence make sure you equip Role Play corners with every-day objects.

Everyday and imaginary objects

To add more realistic touch, to empower children and to promote independence add lots of everyday objects. They will depend on the themes you offer, the following are good examples: a cutting board,  a suitcase, real coins, kitchen pots & cooking utensils, shopping bags, wallets etc.

Multicultural elements

To promote positive relationships, diversity and understanding of the world make sure you have plenty of cross-cultural elements. They can be traditional items but also every day objects such as clothing, cooking or home decoration items. You may wish to consider local and regional considerations to promote positive images and help build positive relationships. 

When children engage in role-play, their main motivation is self-expression and exploration – they do it inspired by certain features, characteristics or aspects of the character and context of their choice. Their intention isn’t to exploit culture, ridicule, offend or diminish as culture as a concept is not yet developed at this stage of children’s development.

children role play in the woods
When children role play their main motivation is to self-expression and exploration.

With this in mind, any behaviour that may seem offensive to adult should be carefully reflected upon by educators to make sure our personal beliefs and values and as a result our reaction to children’s creative expression do not negatively influence and limit children’s development. Behaviour that may unintentionally cause upset can be easily corrected by educators by offering gentle and positive guidance, further facilitation, proposing activities that raise children’s awareness of certain cultural significance, rituals, traditions etc. Any aggressive or concerning behaviour should be dealt with using Positive Pedagogy.

Safety

Role Play space must be big enough for children to move freely and safely. There should be no strings, sharp objects and small elements present. Pay particular attention to clothing as they might contain strings, small buttons or decorative sharp elements such as a brooches. Makes sure you do not provide long necklaces or small beads. If you use second hand items they should all be thoroughly cleaned prior to offering them to children. Also, you need to regularly wash and clean all clothing items from the play corner to prevent cross-infections.

When children play in a creative way, their play space tends to get messy and obstructed relatively quickly, and this can compromise their safety and wellbeing. Sorting items back where they belong after each play and agreeing on safety rules together with your children will help you keep your role play areas safe, tidy and inspiring.

role play early childhood girl playing kitchen
Role Play corners offer plenty of opportunities for high quality cross-curricular learning.

Behavioural Guidelines

In their explorations children may sometimes copy different kinds of behaviour they have observed as part of their journey to learn and understand the world. It may happen that the behaviour they choose to imitate is not necessarily on the positive spectrum, and that it may raise concerns amongst educators and parents. For example, children may want to use certain toys as imaginary weapons, or even use toy swords or toy guns to arrest, entrap, or even kill their play character. They may want to become a villain, a burglar or a force of destruction, and their behaviour during this kind of role play will most likely reflect this. 

Such behaviour does not automatically have to be a cause for concern. In most cases it’s a way in which a child explores certain emotions, traits, behavioural patterns, ways of acting, speaking or expressing energy. It’s important that children are given permission to do so, and are offered a non-judgmental support from their educators and parents.

Offering this kind of support is not the same as promoting or encouraging certain ways of behaving. Rather, it’s a permission for safe exploration in order to understand the complexity of this world, and to familiarise themselves with a broader spectrum of emotions.

children role play knights in the park early childhood
Children may wish to explore a range of behaviours on their journey to self-discovery and understanding the world.

Your role as Early Years Educator is to guide, facilitate, navigate towards, and promote positive models of behaviour on a daily basis. When there is a need for course correction, you should offer it through Positive Pedagogy and a smart use of such tools and strategies as story-telling, circle time, group discussion, displaying positive images, promoting positive ways of communication, or establishing behaviour rules together with children.

You should be concerned, however, if your children’s role plays regularly lead to displaying aggressive behaviour that goes beyond mimicking and result in bullying, physical or verbal abuse, or physical or emotional harm. Another situation is when you suspect that some children under your care may have access to content reserved for adults – in which case you should discuss it with their parents. When you suspect that your children’s behaviour may signal that they suffer from abuse or neglect, you should continue your observations and follow your setting procedures and local protocols for dealing with such cases. 

Variety and long-term framework

At the beginning it is good to set up a role play corner using the resources you already have and with time add more elements. Observing your children using the space will give you some hints what needs to be improved and what elements to add. In the long run you would wish to establish a few different types of Role Play Corners to offer variety and appeal to children’s interest. We can assure you that by doing so you will also establish a strong framework for long-term high quality learning without having to rely on structured activities.

Role Play Corners are such a delight to set up as it is an ongoing project. As such, it providers additional value to your daily or weekly routines because you can easily involve children in helping you either adjust, redesign or plan such spaces and by doing so you offer them even further opportunities to take ownership of their learning journeys, learning resources and space. Yet another wonderful way to offer Future-oriented learning now! 

WHAT TO DO NEXT

To help you learn how to implement Role Play Corners in your setting and support Active Experiential Learning and Child-led Play, Natural Born Leaders has launched a new teacher support programme ACTIVE LEARNING BOOSTER

It’s a self-paced hands-on online training programme for Early Years and Primary Teachers who are ready to offer Future-Oriented Education based on Active Experiential Holistic Learning and Development.

You can access the first training module for FREE


Experiential Learning Future Oriented Education Teacher Training

FREE ACCESS

Magdalena Matulewicz Witold Matulewicz Natural Born Leaders
Authors: Magdalena Matulewicz & Witold Matulewicz – Teacher Trainers, Assessors

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