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Play is almost universally recognized as an integral factor in children's learning and development. For example, Macintyre (2001, 4) quotes Isaacs' 1933 description of play: Play is "the crucial component in children's development," and adds that everyone "concerned with young children" should "recognise and value the different kinds of understanding developed through play" (Macintyre 2001, 3-4).
Although different play activities promote children's in different ways, Keenan (2002) identifies a number of areas of development that are impacted or enhanced by play, including cognition, language and communication, social, and emotional. The recent Curriculum guidance for children from three through the reception year (Foundation Stage) ephasizes learning opportunities and experiences ; for example, "the area of language and literacy was broadened to include communication and emphasized the importance of developing literacy through play" and "advocates play and exploration as a basis for literacy learning in the early years" (Miller and Smith 2004, 122). Within the Early Years curriculum, role play is an excellent example of a play activity that promotes many areas of development.
Before examining the ways role play promotes development in children, it is helpful to define both play and role play. Macintyre (2001, 3) defines play as activity that is enjoyable, gives pleasure, and undertaken by the player freely, that is, it can be abandoned at any time without blame. Play further has no preconceived outcome; the agenda can develop as play goes on (Macintyre 2001, 3). Additionally, play allows the player to develop skills which are important in non-play situations, such as development of social skills (Macintyre 2001, 3). Children around age three and four begin to enjoy imaginative role play in twos or small groups (O'Hagan and Smith 2004, 36).
As a particular play activity, role play is a type of imaginative play, where children assume roles outside their real world place. Role play allows children to construct proximities between themselves and others in their lives. Piaget's theory of development contends infants first engage in pretend play around eighteen months, acting out imaginary activities and using real objects to represent imagined objects, such as pretending a television remote is a telephone (Keenan 2002, 123). Children may participate in limited role play at this point if directed by an older person.
However, cooperative role play, where children instigate their own roles and story line, are rarely undertaken by children before three years of age (Keenan 2002, 200). According to Vygotsky, children engage in pretend play roles beyond their current stage in life, such as taking on adult roles, such as a parent, teacher or doctor, or roles as adolescents or older children(Keenan 2002, 135). Through pretend play, children place themselves in a zone of proximal development, where they play at a level which is in advance of their real capabilities (Keenan 2002, 135)
Cognitively, role play promotes development in several ways. First, it allows children practice in ordering their thoughts and develop understanding. "Piaget believed that children were active agents of their own learning and that the major task for them was to develop an ability to organize experiences and learn from them in a way which enables them to make sense of the world (O'Hagan and Smith 2004, 10). Role play activities are "the highest form of symbolic play, encompassing two types of cognitive operation which are necessary for conservation, namely reversibility and decentration" (Umek and Musek 2001, 56).
Children are able to freely leave the roles they take on, as indicated in the free participation concept introduced in the definition of play above. This 'reversibility' indicates cognitively children are awareness that they can abandon their assumed role and return to reality at any time (Umek and Musek 2001, 56). The cognitive ability of decentration involves children's understanding that the person in the role play scenario is really them, yet is also simultaneously the role undertaken (Umek and Musek 2001, 56).
Cognitively, this means children must "preserve the imaginary identity of toys or play materials despite the fact that they are perceptually and/or functionally inadequate (the issue being the conservation of identity)" (Umek and Musek 2001, 56). In such pretend play, "children learn that the objects they use can be separated from their normal referents, and that they can stand for other things" (Keenan 2002, 135). This object will typically be similar in some way, such as size or shape, to the pretend object in the role play, causing the children to practice analogous thinking skills where they related an item not available to them to another available object (Keenan 2002, 135).
The development of language and communication skills are recognized as "closely linked to children's thinking and conceptual development" (O'Hagan and Smith 2004, 18). In addition to cognitive development, role play offers important development opportunities in the areas of language and communication. This can be intentional, such as when parents or other older players in the role play intentionally support vocabulary development by introducing names of things during the context of play (Keenan 2002, 154). However, the opportunity to talk and verbally interact with others in the role play further presents a powerful way of learning even when no intentional instruction occurs (O'Hagan and Smith 2004, 18).
In role play, children learn to use language as a form of symbolic representation, and also "communicate symbolically through dramatic play" (O'Hagan and Smith 2004, 25). Such symbolic play encourages the development of language comprehension (Umek and Musek 2001, 56). Fantasy role play encourages explicit and expressive speech due to its symbolic nature.
"Role enactment and the use of various objects have different functions in play and in real life, therefore the child-player-must define these symbolic transformations verbally, so that they have a clear (recognisable) meaning and are comprehensible to his or her playmates" (Umek and Musek 2001, 56). In this way role play promotes the communicative skills of its players. "The symbolic elements of fantasy play, like role and object transformations, enable the child to use lexicographic meanings and explicit speech" (Umek and Musek 2001, 56).
Socially, role play typically involves several other children and/or adults. Keenan (2002) discusses Parten's theory that such cooperative play is "the most complex form of play," as it includes behaviours such as social pretend play where children take on pretend roles (Keenan 2002, 200). The children involved in the role play talk to one another as part of the play, developing their imaginative situations in a co-operative manner. Umek and Musek (2001, 56) report Smilansky's (1968) contention that role play activities promote the child's social development.
"When children use role enactment, they have to reach a consensus about the play theme, the course of events and the transformation of roles and play materials. This can only be achieved when individuals transcend their egocentrism and develop the ability to empathise" (Umek and Musek 2001, 56).
Children further build relationships with the other children or adults with whom they play. Although such relationships are often temporary, such play causes children to "express a preference for certain friends and play regularly with them;" during the Early Years period "there is usually, but always, some preference for play with children of the same sex, but there is still a good deal of mixed play" (O'Hagan and Smith 2004, 36). Role players "share symbolic meanings with each other and assign imaginary roles in their pretend play," both providing opportunities for social development (Keenan 2002, 203).
Co-operative pretend play also is usually based on the children's understanding of the social rules of their culture (Keenan 2002, 135). Therefore, a child behaving 'badly' in the role play will be 'punished' by the child in the 'parent' role. Vygotsky held that as such role play "was an important context in which children learned about the social world" (Keenan 2002, 135). "Children's play is constrained by the rules which guide behaviour in these roles, and, because of this, they learn about the social norms that are expected of people" (Keenan 2002, 135).
Role play can be an important component in children's emotional development. Around eighteen months, "the increase in language and symbolic thought allows some feelings to be expressed through imaginative play" (O'Hagan and Smith 2004, 27). Prior to this children's options were limited to physical displays such as crying, hitting, or facial expressions. This can promote children's emotional development, as it allows them to learn to express their wants and needs, and become emotionally aware of the wants and needs of others.
For example, role play can allow children to act out their fears, such as going to the doctor or being punished (O'Hagan and Smith 2004, 36). These fears might develop from an experience the child has had, such as having a painful injection at the doctor's office, or a perceived fear, such as concern over anticipated punishment.
Role play can also help chilren develop self-efficacy. Even young children have a strong desire to be right or successful, and will avoid areas where they expect to fail (Macintyre 2001, 4). However, "if children can try things with no fear of failure they are more likely to stretch out and tackle things they might otherwise avoid" (Macintyre 2001, 4). Since there is no defined end product, there is no fear or experience of failure. Children are empowered through the communication skills developed in role play, "as they can express their feelings freely, can negotiate their wishes and needs and develop self-confidence and self-esteem" (O'Hagan and Smith 2004, 18)
This self-efficacy can both be encouraged in actions and in emotional expression; role play teaches children healthy and appropriate expressions of emotion. O'Hagan and Smith (2004, 38) studied groups of young children who viewed adults handling a situation, with each group seeing a different emotional response. One group viewed the adults as dealing with the issue by becoming angry and physically aggressive, and were later observed to emotionally deal with a similar situation in a similar manner, i.e. with anger and physical aggression. O'Hagan and Smith (2004, 36) contend this reinforces Bandura's claim that children learn from models in their lives, particularly those they view as similar to themselves, who have a nurturing relationship with them, or who they perceive as powerful and competent (O'Hagan and Smith 2004, 39).
Symbolic play, such as role play, "should certainly form an important part of the preschool curriculum but preschool teachers should bear in mind that the quality of a child's play will be determined by general characteristics of development as well as by the play context" (Umek and Musek 2001, 63). In the classroom, role play can be encouraged through the use of story and related play objects. For example, reading stories that include a kitchen and having a play kitchen available encourages children to first repeat the story through role play, then diverge and develop their own story lines. O'Hagan and Smith (2004, 58) present a typical classroom element, a 'home corner' complete with dressing-up clothes and various objects for domestic play.
Role play can be used for many learning purposes, such as to reinforce desired behaviour or assess children's understanding of material. A teacher is trying to encourage sharing amongst her pupils. In this scenario, the teacher could role play with the children, demonstrating and reinforcing that sharing is a desireable activity. The activity could then be extended, with children being allowed to continue the play without teacher involvement, by later drawing pictures, and/or talking about the role play in a circle time or similar sharing opportunity.
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Finally, role play can also enhance a teacher's evaluation of children's attainments, as the children will demonstrate their abilities in a number of areas during a typical role play activity. In practice, "children can achieve higher levels of individual cognitive functions (conservation, one-to-one correspondence, decentration) in their symbolic play than they demonstrate when the same mental operations are tested and measured in formal, non-play, situations" (Umek and Musek 2001, 64). As such, observations and assessment based on role play can be highly valuable in the classroom environment.
Keenan, T. 2002. An Introduction to Child Development. London: Sage.
Macintyre, C. Enhancing Learning Through Play. London: David Fulton.
Miller, L. 2001. Shaping Early Childhood through the Literacy Curriculum. Early Years, 21(1): 107-116.
Miller, L. and Smith, A.P. 2004. Practitioners' beliefs and children's experiences of literacy in four early years settings. Early Years, 24(2): 121-133.
O'Hagan, M. and Smith, M. 2004. Early Years Child Care and Education: Key Issues. Edinburgh: Bailliere Tindall.