The Importance of Dramatic Play

a girl having fun reading

Article by Tammy R. Benson, Ed.D.

Research clearly supports developmentally appropriate practices in the early childhood classroom, but recent demands by specific programs and curriculum trends may cause teachers to question whether it can all be done "appropriately." Many times, teachers find themselves struggling with time and organization restraints where one or two curriculum trends take over the classroom, leaving little time for anything else. For example, teachers can become so diligent in planning specific standards related assessments and instruction that they lose time for other strategies that have worked for children in the past. Dramatic play is one effective strategy that is sometimes "pushed aside" to make room for all the new ideas and strategies. It may seem impossible to accomplish everything, but it can be done! The secret to keeping the balance in developmentally appropriate practices involves adjusting our curriculum to new trends and research suggestions without sacrificing the benefits of current practices that have proved beneficial results for young children time and time again.

Research is abundant when it comes to play and its positive effect on children's development. Play is enjoyable for all but often underestimated for its unique way of positively influencing physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development. Children especially can become consumed in their own imaginary world of play. This world of play offers children vast opportunities to learn about themselves, others, and the environment in which they live. Benefits of play in the classroom include:

  • Physical: increase in strength, overall fitness, motor skill development, health;
  • Cognitive: increase in skills such as problem solving, creative thinking, planning, organizing, language, and overall academic success;
  • Social and Emotional: enhanced development of cooperation, sharing, turn taking, less egocentrism, increase in prosocial values and self esteem, practice of appropriate social roles.

Smilansky (1968) pioneered the idea of a positive correlation between children's sociodramatic play and their success in school. Her study was one of the first that began to tutor low socioeconomic children to play in hopes that they would make academic progress. She found children who were unsuccessful with sociodramatic play tended to have parents with little or no formal education. These children came from environments where play was discouraged as being unrealistic. Her research concludes that adults should value play by providing a context where the play can be supported.

Creating Sociodramatic Play Boxes

What materials would be best for encouraging dramatic play? Myhre (1993) found that thematic prop boxes were especially useful for promoting sociodramatic play. The dependence of younger children on more realistic props is very important in the early years. It is advisable to provide toddler and preschool classrooms with more realistic and creative props. Proper settings continue to affect children's development of sociodramatic play. Much time, planning, and attention is needed to provide a setting that promotes higher developments of play.

Suggestions for creating dramatic play boxes for the classroom

  • Build around thematic units
  • Collect inexpensive play materials
  • Designate a specific play area in the classroom
  • Allow adequate time for play experiences
  • Encourage children to be creative with play themes
  • Add literacy/print experiences to every play box
  • Add items to promote character development and prosocial behaviors

Questions to assess your dramatic play area at set-up

  • Does the play center incorporate a variety of materials that will encourage dramatic play of young children?
  • Does the play center include materials that will stimulate literacy activities (reading, writing, speaking, listening)?
  • Does the play center include teacher-made as well as commercial materials?
  • Are materials available that promote creativity and flexibility of play?
  • Are the materials developmentally appropriate for young children?
  • Are play props included which are conducive to a thematic unit? Is there a "theme" to your play center?
  • Does the play center reinforce physical, cognitive, & social skills appropriate for the grade level?

Questions to assess your dramatic play area once in use

  • Are children actively involved in play themes?
  • Do projects stem from natural encounters with play materials?
  • Are children engaged in high levels of social play, specifically cooperative play?
  • Does the center area account for various skill differences and individual learning preferences?
  • Are children supporting in problem solving activities?


Today experts agree that play is beneficial to children and their overall healthy development. Through dramatic play, children learn to assert themselves in a way to build their competence in later adult roles (Elkind, 1981). Developmental psychologists, such as Piaget and Sutton-Smith, define play as specific behaviors involving divergent thinking. The Association for Childhood Education International has stated that play is a natural behavior that is related to children's development and that no adult instruction can take the place of children's own activities and experiences through continual play. Bredekamp (1999) acknowledges child-initiated, child-directed, and teacher-supported play as a valuable element of developmentally appropriate practice. The research gives credence to the many positive results appearing from children's involvement in play.


  • Bredekamp, S. (1999). Developmentally appropriate practice for children birth through age 8. Washington D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
  • Elkind, D. (1981) The Hurried Child: Growing up Too Fast Too Soon. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
  • Myhre, S.M. (1993). Enhancing your dramatic-play area through the use of prop boxes. Young Children, 48(5): 6-11.
  • Smilansky, S. (1968). The Effects of Sociodramatic Play on Disadvantaged Preschool Children. New York: Wiley.

About the Author

Tammy R. Benson, Ed.D. is an associate professor at the University of Central Arkansas. Tammy teaches early childhood education and reading classes. Her research interests include play, emergent literacy and assessment.

Published: August 2004