Recently I attended a performance of Don Cristobal, the Spanish version of Punch and Judy, at the Abrons Arts Center. I went in with no expectations and little information about the show other than that it involved puppets. In the small experimental theater, that perhaps sat 100 people, I soon fell under the spell of the charming cast and the universal story of unrequited love.
As I watched, my mind volleyed from incredulity at how adept the puppeteers were in making the Cristobal puppet seem like a real person, to marvelling at the actors’ ability to employ their imaginations and activate those of the audience.
This naturally made me think of dramatic play with young children. Recently in Curriculum for Early Childhood Education, a course I am taking with Sal Vascellaro, we discussed the value in dramatic play for children. Giving children time, space, and materials to explore experiences that are new to them, allows them to make sense of their world. The opportunity to recreate scenes and roles provides children with a medium for problem solving skills, socializing, and building their confidence. When I worked with five-year-olds, I would regularly observe them pretending to be superheroes, monsters, and zombies at recess time, which likely demonstrated their desire to be powerful beings, able to do things that children cannot or are not allowed to do.
As I have pondered the importance of dramatic play, I have found myself questioning why it seems that as children grow, such play diminishes. In fact, unless an older child, teenager or adult takes an active interest in acting, they often do not participate in dramatic play again. Could dramatic play benefit people of all ages?
In my opinion, it could, and not just particularly for educators trying to capture the attention of their students. Imagining, or playing with concepts of reality can be a very powerful excursion for the mind, creating new perspectives, and even fostering compassion (you can’t know a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes). As standardized testing and curriculum cause ever-increasing pressures in the classroom, it seems that the battle to dedicate time to dramatic play is tougher than ever, though not impossible to win. And the benefits are worth fighting for. As the Association for Childhood Education International states “No adult instruction can take the place of children’s own activities and experiences through continual play.”