A child’s world of dramatic play is every bit as important to them as the real world. Pretending to be princesses or superheroes, big brothers or homemakers, is one of the ways that young children seek to deepen their understanding of their world. By placing themselves into the shoes of others, they gain a new perspective on the behaviors and emotions as others as well as themselves. The narrative aspects of this sort of imaginative play lays the groundwork for literacy. The cooperative aspects give children experience working together on personally meaningful projects, developing such vital social skills as negotiating, compromising, and agreeing as they play their way through the stories they are creating together. The once-removed aspect of dramatic play allows children to explore their big emotions and the emotions of others in a safe setting. And there are few better ways to practice basic social skills than in creating a fantasy world together.

The urge to engage in dramatic play begins to show itself early in preschoolers, tending to come into full fruition as children approach four and five-years-old. In reality, the only costume or prop children really need is one another, but among the playthings I’ve found most popular in dramatic play scenarios are:
  • Pieces of fabric of various colors, patterns, and sizes
  • Ribbon and scarves
  • Masks, capes and hats
  • Cookware, brooms, dust pans, and other household tools
  • Boxes, purses, and luggage
  • Old phones, cameras, sunglasses, jewelry (and other such items that have been “retired.”)
  • Mirrors
  • Baby dolls
  • Puppets
  • Stuffed animals
  • Paper, scissors, markers/crayons, and tape (for making props)

And don’t forget books. There are nothing like books for inspiring young children in their dramatic play.

During one of my first years as a teacher, a group of three and four-year-olds were playing a game of camping. They had draped a blanket over the backs of some chairs, under which they huddled together, alternating between being asleep and waking up. A pile of building blocks served as their campfire. Suddenly, a pair of bears stomped onto their site, kicking out the fire while roaring menacingly. There were screams as the campers cowered in their tent.

I was sitting off to the side with one of their classmates, a bright boy, an early reader and sophisticated talker who many would have considered "gifted." He was watching the game with a glassy gaze until the arrival of the bears when his eyes widened into alarmed circles before, after a moment, narrowing into a look of suspicion, "Are they pretending?" At the time, I took his question to be referring to the entire scenario, but in hindsight, I realize he may just have been asking about the shrieks of terror, but whatever the case something about it struck him as "real," at least for a moment. I assured him it was pretend, pointing out that everyone was smiling, and no one was really being eaten and he seemed satisfied to have his suspicions confirmed.

Young children spend a lot of time exploring that line between real and pretend, playing with it like a curtain, dancing in and out, examining the world from both sides. We make a mistake when we consider their pretend worlds to be frivolous. Dramatic play is an important part of how children come to understand reality, a safe place where they can explore themes and concepts they want to better comprehend. In this camping game, for instance, which emerged from one of the children having recently experienced her first family camping trip, they were playing with what it means to sleep outdoors, away from home, snuggled together with only a piece of fabric for protection. They were playing with the idea of fear, violence, ferocity, and the ruthlessness of the natural world, where bears might very well eat you. By adopting roles like mommy and daddy and big sister and bear, they were assuming the "costume" of another, trying to imagine how the world looks from the perspective of another person whose station in life is very different from their own. No, these games are far from frivolous: they are essential.

When the boy asked me "Are they pretending?" I assured him that they were, but I could have just as honestly answered "No," because like every game of pretend, reality stands at the heart of it. Quite often, for instance, the emotions are real, even if the characters involved are unicorns and superheroes. The negotiating required to come to the collective agreements required to manufacture pretend worlds is as real, and often as intense, as any international diplomacy. The working together, the cooperation, and the collaboration are valuable currency in the real world as well as their pretend ones.

Yet still, even as reality and fantasy slip back and forth, even as the line is as fine as gossamer, most children, most of the time, know exactly where they are at any given moment, which is why the boy's question has stuck with me. Yes, they sometimes get momentarily lost in their games, sometimes they pretend so well they frighten themselves or actually hit or forget they're not really the queen, but taken all together, it is really quite miraculous how well they keep it all sorted in their individual as well as collective minds. Most of the time, as I was with the camping game, I'm just watching, marveling at their natural ability to walk that line or dance with that curtain, together, weaving a world beyond our hidebound one, a new reality that usually begins with the invitation "Let's pretend . . ." and is propelled by agreement.