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Introducing Your Child to the Arts: Dramatic Play for Children

— National Endowment for the Arts
Updated on Mar 14, 2011

"I am not a historian. I happen to think that the content of my mother’s life—her myths, her superstitions, her prayers, the contents of her pantry, the smell of her kitchen, the song that escaped from her sometimes parched lips, her thoughtful repose
and pregnant laughter—are all worthy of art."

- August Wilson, playwright

Children of all ages love to pretend. As toddlers, they mimic things they see in everyday life. In preschool, they recreate familiar roles and events. By elementary school age, they act out stories, creating original plots, adapting fairy tales or children’s books. As children leave early childhood, they enter a new stage of drama that is a more formal type of play-acting—going on stage to present prepared scripts.

For young children, the theater arts are best thought of as informal endeavors that extend the natural habits of play and learning. In prekindergarten and elementary classes, children learn the basics of structuring their “pretending” for presentation to an audience. More advanced skills—acting, directing, scene and costume design, playwrighting, and stage management—come after elementary school.

In addition to creating theater in its many forms, children benefit from seeing it. Theater for young audiences, also known as children’s theater, is dramatic theater performed by professionals specifically for an audience of children.

As young children take part in drama, they gain many benefits:

  • Knowledge of and skill in theater arts.
  • Improved literacy skills—reading, writing, and speaking.
  • Development of imagination and aesthetic awareness.
  • Independent and critical thinking and increased ability to solve problems.
  • Social growth and the ability to work with others.
  • A healthy release of emotion.
  • Fun and recreation.

Educational theater offers parents benefits as well:

  • Time spent with their child in creative moments.
  • Insights into the observations, impressions, interests, fears, and humor that their child reveals.
  • Opportunities to witness their child’s developmental growth.
  • The chance to help their child understand some of life’s dilemmas.

Engaging Young Children in Theater

There are several ways that parents and teachers can help children enjoy dramatic play, even with little or no theater background or experience. First of all, encourage children to play and to be imaginative. Enter into the game by giving children the chance to take the lead in play activities, taking your cues from them about your role. If you ask questions, you extend and deepen the experience. For example, children enjoy reenacting common everyday experiences. One child might decide to be a storekeeper and ask the parent or teacher to take the role of the customer. Simple questions can broaden  play. “Do you have these shoes in the color red?”“How much do these shoes cost?” The adult allows the child to direct dialogue and ideas, but supports the play by developing the theme initiated by the child.

Very young children naturally engage in dramatic play in nearly any setting. As Mom or Dad cook in the kitchen, a set of plastic measuring cups and a wooden spoon are sufficient for even a young toddler to pretend to join in. This simple imitation of life marks an early stage of dramatic play. For preschoolers and kindergarteners, it is possible to encourage dramatic play by providing a special space. This could be a corner of a child’s room where toys are kept or a space in a family room or kitchen. Add to the possibilities by collecting “props,” everyday objects ready for dramatization. For instance, a scarf can become a shawl, a sash, or any number of things. Hats can denote different characters. Baskets, bags, and plastic dishes are all useful props.

Dramatic play need not be confined to one space; it is spontaneous, and the impulse to enact a character or imitate an action is rarely planned in advance. Chances are it will be brief and fragmentary, although as children grow older, the games become longer and more detailed. Favorite stories and activities are often repeated, but even with repetition, new ideas are constantly generated.

Build on the interests children express through dramatic play. For example, ask a child who has demonstrated an interest in dogs to be the dog expert. You can take your pretend dog to the “expert” to find out what to feed the dog, what games the dog might like to play, and more generally how to treat a dog. Let the child be the expert and offer personal perspectives learned from his or her newly acquired interest. It is important to remember that the child should be the center of the dramatic play.

Storytelling through dramatic play is also a favorite activity of young children. Begin by reading a wellknown children’s story. A simple story like Caps for Sale has great appeal for the young child and sets the stage for an informal theater experience.

Finally, enjoy these early experiences with your child. Remember that they are the child’s first engagement with this art form and can lead to lifelong pleasure. You are not necessarily encouraging a career in theater; you are helping the development of a human being through this most human of the arts, the theater.

More formal encounters with theater can be found in a variety of places. Think about planning a vacation to visit a place where “living history” is an integral element of the experience, such as Colonial Williamsburg.Historical sites established by the National Park Service often include theater-like elements. In some places, children may dress up in period costumes and play a part in historical scenarios. The professionals planning these experiences ensure success for the children by taking the lead.

There are many benefits associated with children going to the theater. Among them are:

  • Appreciation of theater as an aesthetic experience, and increased awareness of social and cultural values.
  • Sharing in a communal art form.
  • Increased knowledge of history and human events. 

Theater for young audiences includes a wide range of subject matter: folk and fairy tales, contemporary social issues, adventure stories, and historical and biographical dramas. The form may be straight dramatic play,musical, documentary, or movement theater.

Here are some elements that parent and child can discuss after watching a production:

  • A good story. Theater for young audiences today is wide-ranging, offering plays on subjects from traditional fairy tales to current events. Whatever the topic, a good production will clarify its subject. Did you learn something new or gain a new insight through the play?
  • Credible characters. A “willing suspension of disbelief” is necessary for viewing theater, but the characters should be plausible. Did actions seem totally out-of-character for someone in the play? If so, did you lose interest in the drama?
  • Excellent performance skills (acting, dance, music, and any other skills called for such as juggling, fencing, etc.). Do these skills support the development of character? Are they at a level befitting the expectations of the actors, both in terms of the amateur or professional status of the company and the actions of the characters?
  • Effective visual elements. Do scenery, costumes, and lighting transport you to the place and time of the play? Are they visually engaging? In cases where scenery and lighting are minimal or absent, did the production stimulate your imagination in other effective ways?
  • Challenging ideas. A good script can provoke thought, bring new ideas to light, perhaps help you look at a facet of life in a new or different way. Ask your child what he or she got from a performance. Try open-ended questions such as: What did you see on the stage? What was a particular character trying to do? What happened at the very beginning?
  • Insight into other cultures. Theater can take us in time and place to other communities and cultures. Did the production help you learn about cultural or ethnic traditions?
  • Strong emotional response and involvement in the plot. Were you moved by the action of the play? While emotions can’t always be verbalied, a discussion with your child about his or her feelings about what happened can benefit both of you.

Following some productions, theater companies offer workshops, question and answer sessions, and discussion sessions that are facilitated by theater professionals (actors, directors, playwrights). Contact your local theater for young audiences to find out about these special offerings.

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