Benefits of Dramatic Play in ECE
Child Care and Education

The Impact of Dramatic Play in Early Childhood Education

Make-believe it or not, dramatic play has a big role to play in a child’s cognitive and social development. But what is dramatic play, and how can you use it in your early childhood education classroom?
Lauren Ambrosio

Lauren Ambrosio

You may have heard about dramatic play before by a different name–playing pretend, role-playing, or playing make-believe. It often looks like children pretending to perform tasks that they’ve either seen in real life, on TV, or have made up.

Dramatic play has a big role in developing cognitive and social skills in children [1]. It provides them with safe environments to practice their emotional, physical, verbal, and social skills [2]. But what exactly is it, and how do you use it in the classroom?

What is dramatic play?

Dramatic play is where children take on different roles and act out scenarios. It’s a form of symbolic play where children use real or imaginary objects to represent other real or imaginary objects. In short, it’s when children pretend to be something or someone else. While that is a simplified definition, there are different types of dramatic play that children engage in, and all of them are beneficial to their development. Dramatic play is broken down into two primary types: structured and unstructured play. Unstructured dramatic play allows children to make their own choices, while structured dramatic play gives children guidelines [2].


Types of dramatic play

Unstructured dramatic play is spontaneous by nature, but there are some themes that often emerge with preschoolers during dramatic play:

  • Domestic or household mimicry: Children might pretend to be parents, cooks, or caregivers, imitating daily household tasks like cooking, cleaning, and taking care of babies.
  • Fantasy or Make-Believe: Preschoolers create imaginary worlds or scenarios that might involve dragons, fairies, superheroes, or other fantastical elements. They might pretend to have magical powers or go on adventurous quests [3].
  • Job roleplay: Children take on roles of various professionals they're familiar with or admire, such as chefs, doctors, firefighters, teachers, and astronauts.
  • Animal play: Whether a cat, dog, or T-rex, children pretend to be animals, mimicking the behaviors, sounds, and interactions of their chosen animal.
  • Construction play: While it can be both structured and unstructured, kids might incorporate dramatic elements by creating stories around the structures they build. For instance, they might build a fortress and then act out a story of knights defending it.
  • Transportation play: Whether pretending to travel near or far, preschoolers incorporate pretend driving, flying, or riding the bus during play.
  • Acts of heroism: Some children pretend to be superheroes, rescuing other children or stuffed animals from their imaginary peril.
  • Media reenactment: Preschoolers take what they see on TV and turn it into dramatic play, pretending to be the characters.
  • Socio-dramatic play: This is when children imitate and act out social roles and interactions that they observe in their surroundings. It can involve complex scenarios with multiple characters, each having a specific role. This type of play is often more structured [4].


Read more: Roles & Responsibilities of an Early Childhood Educator


What is the difference between role play and dramatic play?

Both dramatic play and role play are integral parts of ECE, allowing children to learn and develop through imagination and imitation. Roleplay, unlike dramatic play, starts with a structured setting based on a specific lesson or skill. It creates a setting for children to act out specific roles in order to develop skills associated with the behaviors of the role. Dramatic play provides an open-ended method of exploring, and when you add a narrower, lesson-based theme, you have role play [5].


How does dramatic play enhance children's emotional development?

Dramatic play is a powerful tool for children’s emotional development. By acting out pretend scenarios and roleplaying a variety of imaginary interactions, preschoolers learn to process, understand, and express their emotions in different, healthy ways. During dramatic play, children have a safe space to express themselves, externalizing what they are feeling in a constructive way. This is a good way for little ones to process certain experiences and trauma that have affected them.


Dramatic play helps teach empathy and understanding because children can ‘take a walk in someone else’s shoes’ and think about how they would behave, feel, and react. During dramatic play with each other, preschoolers are learning how to negotiate, cooperate, and navigate group dynamics. These are all valuable skills to have throughout your life, and dramatic play allows children a safe space to practice [6].


Read more: Meet an Early Childhood Education Teacher


How can dramatic play serve as an outlet for children?

Dramatic play is an excellent outlet for children in so many ways! As mentioned above, it allows them to express and process emotions and helps them handle stress and anxiety. How? They can act out scenarios that might be scary–like going to the doctor or flying on a plane–and take the fear out of it by working through it in a safe space.


In the real world, children have very little control over their lives. In dramatic play spaces, they control the narrative and its outcomes. It can feel comforting to be in control, especially if a child feels powerless or overwhelmed in real life.


This sense of self can be developed partly through dramatic play since children learn some of what they like, don’t like, and things they’re good at during dramatic play. Not only does it help preschoolers explore what is, but it also helps them to play out what could be [7].


Read more: How to Become a Preschool Teacher


ECE dramatic play ideas

There are endless ways to incorporate dramatic play into early childhood education classrooms. Below are some ideas for preschoolers, kindergarteners, and some bonus ideas for dramatic play center setups.


Always make sure each station has age-appropriate toys and tools and ask your students what they’d like to see.


Read more: ECE Grad Thrives in Field


Dramatic play ideas for preschool

For preschool-age children, the main objective of dramatic play is to encourage social, emotional, and language development. Through dramatic play, children learn to express themselves, understand different perspectives, and build crucial social skills like cooperation, sharing, and problem-solving. It also helps in developing their vocabulary and communication skills as they interact with their peers in various pretend scenarios.


Theme Props Activity
Kitchen/Cafe Toy kitchen set, plastic food items, menus, cash register, aprons. Children can pretend to be chefs, waiters, or customers.
Doctor’s Clinic Toy stethoscope, band-aids, doctor's coat, patient forms, toy syringes. Children play doctor-patient scenarios.
Post Office Envelopes, stamps, mailboxes, mailbags. Children can write letters, be mail carriers, or sort mail.
Grocery Store Shopping carts, play money, empty food boxes, cash register. Children can shop or act as store clerks.
Fire Station Toy fire trucks, firefighter hats, hoses. Respond to emergencies and practice fire safety.
Farm Toy animals, hay, farmer hats, toy tractors. Take care of animals, plant crops, or harvest.
Space Exploration Spacesuits, space helmets, toy rockets, alien figures. Go on space missions or explore alien planets.
Library Books, library cards, reading nook, "due date" stamps. Children can be librarians or readers.
Beauty Salon/Barber Shop Hairbrushes, pretend scissors, mirrors, chairs. Give haircuts or beauty treatments.
Camping Site Tents, toy campfires, sleeping bags, lanterns. Camp out, tell stories around the campfire, or go on nature hikes.
Pirate Adventure Pirate hats, toy swords, treasure chests, maps. Hunt for treasure or sail the high seas.
Construction Site Hard hats, toy tools, blocks, safety vests. Build structures or repair broken ones.
Transportation Hub Toy cars, planes, buses, tickets, maps. Drive vehicles, be passengers, or act as ticket sellers.
Dinosaur Dig Site Toy dinosaurs, brushes, sandboxes. Discover dinosaur bones or study prehistoric creatures.
Pet Shop or Vet Clinic Toy animals, cages, pet food, vet tools. Take care of pets, diagnose and treat animal illnesses.

Dramatic play ideas for kindergarten

The main objective of dramatic play for kindergarteners is to foster cognitive and social-emotional development, enhancing skills such as communication, problem-solving, cooperation, and empathy.


Theme Props Activity
Supermarket Shopping carts, play money, product boxes, price tags. Children shop for groceries or act as cashiers and stockers.
Airport Toy airplanes, luggage, tickets, boarding passes, pilot and stewardess outfits. Kids can pretend to be pilots, travelers, or airport staff.
Zoo Toy animals, zookeeper outfits, signs for animal habitats. Children act as zookeepers, tourists, or even the animals themselves.
Train Station Toy trains, tracks, tickets, conductor hats. Kids play the roles of passengers, conductors, or station managers.
Castle and Knights Toy swords, shields, crowns, robes, toy dragons. Children engage in medieval tales, becoming knights, princesses, or dragons.
Garden Toy plants, shovels, pots, gardening gloves, flower baskets. Kids plant flowers, take care of a garden, or pretend to be bugs.
Bank Play money, bank forms, calculators, bank teller windows. Children can be bankers, customers depositing money, or cashing checks.
Dress-Up Boutique Various clothes, hats, shoes, jewelry, mirrors. Kids can try on different outfits and play fashion show or store cashiers.
Music Band Toy instruments, microphones, stage setup. Children form a band, sing songs, or hold concerts.
Detective Agency Magnifying glasses, notepads, clues, hats. Kids can solve mysteries, search for clues, or play cops and robbers.
Weather Station Weather charts, toy microphones, pretend cameras. Children become weather forecasters, reporting on different weather scenarios.
Travel Agency Brochures, world map, phone, office setup. Kids plan trips, recommend destinations, or act as travelers booking a trip.
Puppet Theater Puppets, theater stage, scripts. Children can enact stories using puppets or create their own tales.
News Studio Toy cameras, microphones, news desk, reporter notebooks. Kids can be news anchors, reporters, or camera operators, sharing news stories.
Animal Hospital Toy animals, vet tools, cages, examination tables. Children diagnose and treat toy animals or play the role of concerned pet owners.

Dramatic play center ideas

These centers are designed to engage preschool and kindergarten children in meaningful play, encouraging them to take on different roles, solve problems collaboratively, and communicate effectively with their peers. Each theme comes with a set of suggested sensory props and activities to help educators set up enriching environments that foster a love for learning and exploration. Dive in and discover the endless possibilities of dramatic play!


Indoor centers

Theme Props Activity
Art Studio Easels, canvases or large drawing tablets, paints, paint brushes, smocks Create art with either a theme in mind or let their imaginations guide them.
Music Studio Instruments, microphones, sheet music, pretend recording equipment Play instruments and gain hands-on experience with a variety of ways to create music.
Science Lab Lab coats, goggles, test tubes, magnifying glasses, color mixing materials Future scientists will love a play science lab.

Outdoor centers

Theme Props Activity
Mud Kitchen Old pots and pans, utensils, water source, dirt Mix mud, create mud pies, experiment with dirt and water.
Nature Exploration Center Binoculars, bug catching kits, magnifying glasses, notebooks Explore the outdoor environment, look for bugs, plants, natural elements.
Sensory Garden Plants, water features, wind chimes Explore through touch, smell, sight, learn about different plants and elements.
Water Exploration Table Water table, cups, funnels, water wheels, boats Experiment with water flow, learn about floating and sinking, play with water toys.

Top 6 benefits of dramatic play

1. Boosting creativity

It encourages them to use their imagination, adopt different roles, solve problems creatively, express themselves emotionally, and develop their language and social skills. This type of play allows children to create and explore imaginary scenarios, fostering flexible and original thinking [8].


2. Enhancing coordination

Dramatic play enhances children's coordination by engaging them in activities that develop both fine and gross motor skills, along with balance and spatial awareness. Handling small props hones their fine motor skills, while larger movements improve gross motor abilities. This playful practice in navigating space and maintaining balance contributes significantly to their overall physical coordination [9].


3. Elevating communication skills

It elevates communication skills in young children by providing them with opportunities to express themselves, articulate their thoughts and ideas, listen to others, and engage in back-and-forth dialogue within various imaginative scenarios. This playful interaction helps to expand their vocabulary, improve their sentence structure, and enhance their overall verbal and non-verbal communication skills [10].


4. Arithmetic learning

In dramatic play, little ones develop math skills by doing activities that involve counting, recognizing numbers, performing basic mathematical operations, understanding patterns and sequences, and solving mathematical problems. For example, they may count items in a pretend store, identify numbers on play money, share toys which introduce them to addition and subtraction, create patterns with play dishes, and tackle math-related challenges that require problem-solving. These playful interactions make learning math concepts enjoyable and accessible, fostering foundational arithmetic skills in a natural and immersive way [11].


5. Developing focus

Children develop the ability to focus by engaging in immersive and meaningful activities that capture their interest. As they take on roles and navigate through various scenarios, they learn to sustain attention, follow a storyline, and concentrate on their interactions and responses. This practice of staying engaged in an activity for an extended period enhances their attention span and ability to focus [12].


6. Nurturing social skills

By providing children with opportunities to interact, communicate, and collaborate with peers, they learn to negotiate roles, resolve conflicts, and understand different perspectives. This enhances their empathy, cooperation, and ability to form positive relationships. They can develop and hone essential social skills in a natural and enjoyable way through dramatic play [10].


Discover more ways to incorporate dramatic play into your ECE classroom

The invaluable role of dramatic play in early childhood education cannot be overstated. It is a pivotal element that fosters creativity, coordination, communication, arithmetic learning, focus, and social skills among young learners. Early childhood educators play a crucial role in facilitating and promoting dramatic play, creating enriched learning environments where children feel free to express themselves, explore, and develop essential life skills.


Careers in ECE are not just professionally rewarding; they have a profound impact on the development of future generations. Educators in this field have the unique opportunity to lay the foundation for lifelong learning and success. Penn Foster offers comprehensive Early Childhood Education programs, equipping aspiring educators with the knowledge and skills needed to excel in this field and make a meaningful difference in the lives of young children. Engaging in ECE programs can open doors to various career paths within early childhood education, ensuring that educators are well-prepared to foster a love for learning and support the holistic development of their young charges.


By investing in the training and development of early childhood educators, and recognizing the significance of dramatic play, we are paving the way for a brighter, more creative, and socially adept future generation.


Learn More: 10 Reasons to Become a Child Care Professional [Infographic]



  1. David Whitebread [email protected] & Lisha O'Sullivan (2012) Preschool children's social pretend play: supporting the development of metacommunication, metacognition and self-regulation, International Journal of Play, 1:2, 197-213, DOI: 10.1080/21594937.2012.693384
  2. Qianyi Gao & Anna H. Hall (2019) Supporting Preschool Children's Learning Through Dramatic Play, Teaching Artist Journal, 17:3-4, 103-105, DOI: 10.1080/15411796.2019.1680236
  3. Stagg Peterson, S., Jang, S. Y., & Tjandra, C. (2019). Young children as playwrights and their participation in classroom peer culture of sociodramatic play. Journal of Early Childhood Research.
  4. Goldstein, T. R. (2018). Developing a Dramatic Pretend Play Game Intervention. American Journal of Play, 10(3), 290–308.
  5. Sachet, Alison B., and Candice M. Mottweiler, 'The Distinction Between Role-Play and Object Substitution in Pretend Play', in Marjorie Taylor (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Imagination, Oxford Library of Psychology (2013; online edn, Oxford Academic, 1 Aug. 2013),, accessed 25 Oct. 2023.
  6. Goldstein, T. R., & Lerner, M. D. (2018). Dramatic pretend play games uniquely improve emotional control in young children. Developmental Science, 21(4), e12603.
  7. Thelen, April Marie, "The impact of pretend play on cognitive and academic development of kindergarten students" (2012). Graduate Research Papers. 234.
  8. Rowe, M. L., Salo, V. C., & Rubin, K. (2018). Toward Creativity: Do Theatrical Experiences Improve Pretend Play and Cooperation among Preschoolers? American Journal of Play, 10(2), 193–207.
  9. Hostettler Schärer, Janine. (2017). Supporting Young Children’s Learning in a Dramatic Play Environment. Journal of Childhood Studies. 42. 62. 10.18357/jcs.v42i3.17895. 
  10. Li, J., Hestenes, L.L. & Wang, Y.C. Links Between Preschool Children’s Social Skills and Observed Pretend Play in Outdoor Childcare Environments. Early Childhood Educ J 44, 61–68 (2016).
  11. Worthington, M. (2020). Mathematical Signs and Their Cultural Transmission in Pretend Play. In: MacDonald, A., Danaia, L., Murphy, S. (eds) STEM Education Across the Learning Continuum. Springer, Singapore.
  12. Hostettler Scharer, J. (2017). Supporting Young Children’s Learning in a Dramatic Play Environment. Journal of Childhood Studies, 42(3), 62-69.

Popular Posts