I noticed my 2 1/2 year old walking around the back yard the other day with a small rectangular rock nestled in the palm of his hand. I watched him excitedly moved it around as he energetically bounded around the lawn, obviously in his own world. I wondered where his imagination had taken him. Then I heard the giveaway: “Boop! Boop!” He was holding the rock out, extending his arm toward a ride along car in the yard. “My boop-boop!” He said as he looked up with a huge grin of satisfaction, having clearly just set the alarm on his toy car with his own personal key fob.
I’ll admit that I was pretty excited too. This type of symbolic play — where an object represents something else — may seem like inconsequential play to some, but it is actually a hallmark of pre-literacy.
Whenever a person reads, they’re scanning across a series of symbols. Together, those symbols make words, and those words carry ideas. But what we actually see or hold is very different that what is going on in our minds. When children play pretend, they are making this same cerebral leap. A block can be a phone. A rag can be a baby. A rock can be a key fob.
And marks on a page can be a story.
This is why I get so discouraged when I hear about early education classrooms doing away with dramatic play areas. The foundational learning that goes on in pretend play is powerful for children.
In addition to the symbolic play that prepares the brain for reading, pretend play often goes hand in hand with language practice, dialogue development, and story structure, all of which continue to prepare young minds for the eventual tasks of literacy. Add to that the great practice kids get with problem-solving (negotiating roles and themes), perspective taking and empathy building (imagining how another person feels as they assume their character), fine motor control (putting costumes on and off), among many other skills.
Getting rid of the dramatic play area in the name of improving literacy is like getting rid of your running shoes so you can improve your mile time.
As Fred Rogers said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
The dramatic play area isn't a distraction from the work of early literacy. It really is the work of early literacy. Let's give children the time and space to get back to that work.