Nurturing the Superhero Inside – The Role of Dramatic Play
Michael Reisman, M.Ed.
Director, HCYMCA Early Childhood Education
Since my induction into the world of the young child some 15 years ago, the subject of dramatic play has been interesting and complex. Dramatic play, or pretend play, is a creative hallmark of the early childhood universe. Even prior to speaking, crawlers and waddlers explore the huge world around them by “trying on” different roles through props and costumes in their classrooms. This continues throughout early childhood, into school-age, and beyond.
Dramatic play appears differently through the ages and stages of early childhood. Children as young as one and two years old take care of baby dolls in pretend “home” or “family” scenarios. I see it in the Waddler and Toddler classrooms at the HCYMCA Child Learning Center every day. It’s astounding to me that children so young are so eager to pretend to be mommies and daddies. But, it should not come as a surprise. Our mind tells us to create meaning (understanding) from our surroundings from the very moment we are flung into existence. And what do one and two year old children know from the earliest age? They know their families. They know what love is. They understand the vulnerability of the small creature, be it the baby, the puppy, or the kitty. Dramatic play provides an important opportunity for them to make sense of the larger world they inhabit and what it means to be “family.”
As they get older, the pretending often migrates from reality to fantasy and back. Whether super-heroes like Batman/Batgirl and Spiderman/Spiderwoman, or community heroes like Doctor or Police Captain, what I see regularly in this play is a projection into the adult world.
Believe it or not, this is a form of literacy. Paolo Freire said there’s two kinds of literacy –the written word, and the world around you. When children re-create the world in that controlled pretend scenario, they are learning how to read the real world. Here’s what else they’re doing:
Reflecting: Reflection is an example of critical thinking. Pretending to be someone else creates space from their own reality, allowing their perspective to widen.
Empathizing: Like the saying goes, you don’t know ‘til you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes. Dramatic play is exactly that. Again, it is “trying on” roles and perspectives other than their own, practicing empathy.
Negotiating/Communicating: When children occupy pretend roles, the improvised script becomes a negotiation of power, jobs, names, titles, tools, props and garb. If the scenario is to play out, an agreement must be reached.
Developing Executive Function: This is a psych phrase for self-control. It has been observed in research studies that children who are allowed or encouraged to occupy a fantasy-based character are able to carry out longer, slower-developing tasks that require patience and staying power. The theory behind these results is that, similar to some of the descriptions above, “[the] persona creates some distance from the self. They are no longer immersed in their own, egocentric perspective, which is often what leads them astray on self-control tasks.” (Carlson, 2018)
If a child is offered/allowed these dramatic play opportunities at home and school, the practice they receive reflecting, empathizing, negotiating, communicating and exhibiting self-control becomes internalized and used outside the dramatic scenario, and into the real one. Like Tony Stark tells Peter Parker in Spiderman Homecoming: “If you’re nothing without the suit, you’re not worthy to wear the suit.” Or something like that.
Carlson, S. M. (2018, May/June). Batman and Brain Development – How Imagination Can Help Children Develop Self-Control – Bridging Research and practice. Childcare Exchange.
Freire, P. (2007). Pedagogy of the Oppressed . New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Watts, J. (Director). (2017). Spiderman Homecoming [Motion Picture].
Michael Reisman, M.Ed. is Director of Early Childhood Education for the Hunterdon County YMCA. firstname.lastname@example.org 908-483-4623
For information regarding Round Valley Child Learning Center Programs call 908-236-0055, ext. 4605. For the YMCA Milford Preschool, 908-995-9107