Through the years, I have had a lot of fun with dramatic play with young children, both as a mother and a teacher. When my boys were little, I remember sneaking through the house as stealth Jedi with young Keith and Wade, as then baby Bryce napped. I instinctively knew it was a fun way to encourage the boys to be quiet. Some ten years ago, my first year of teaching, Mary Amato used to come in and lead our class of 3 and 4 year olds in all sorts of theatrical make-believe. I remember how we would imagine getting onto elevators and visit different "floors" that were filled with all sorts of fun things that the children desired to see - "Dinosaurs," "Toy Store," or perhaps "Restaurant." The children were focused and thrilled to act out each imagined theme; I remember lots of laughter, too.
Later, at Silver Spring Day School, we teachers were trained by Victoria Brown, the founder and director of Lucy School on the uses of dramatic storytelling in the classroom as a tool to foster language development, literacy, and social-emotional development. My colleagues Megan Howard and Amy O'Brien have expanded on this training, leading extraordinary drama classes for our children and making many great children's books come alive. Each day, I ham it up with the children in some way - whether it is simply through "movement" fun, wherein I am trying to release some of their pent up energy by pretending to ski downhill or ice skate with them, or through a fun storytelling adventure at circle time. I'm continually excited by the ability for young children to focus during make-believe.
This past November, I attended a very cerebral discussion at the NAEYC Conference by Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova,
"Executive Functions and School Readiness: Neuroscience Research and What it Tells Us About Developing Self Regulation," Tools of the Mind. These researchers base much of their work on the theories of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist (1896-1934) who believed that developing a child's self-regulation skill should be the emphasis of preschool. Self-regulation is the ability to resist distraction. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is the area that is used in self-regulation and Lev Vygotsky believed "use it or lose it!" - the ability to self-regulate correlates with academic success.
As Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova explained, the self-regulated learner shows self-control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. To develop self-regulation, you must have experience in:
1. being regulated by another person
2. regulating other people
Often, preschool classrooms do only #1 above: the teacher regulates the child. We ask or direct children to behave a certain way and they are expected to follow through. The reality is, in this scenario, children don't necessarily continue to behave in this same appropriate way when the teacher or other adult is not there to give orders.
But, dramatic/make-believe play combines all three of the above and is an excellent tool for promoting self-regulation in children. In make-believe, children agree to play in a scenario (they are regulated by someone else); they tell each other what to do (they are regulating other people) and they stay in a role (self-regulation). Lev Vygotsky and his followers believe one of the most successful ways to help children learn is for teachers to create an imaginary situation and have children take on and act out this situation. This learning can be extended by creating imaginary props for their roles. Children will build the role, build the action, build the speech – and develop a strong self-regulation skill.
There is tremendous value in dramatic play in the classroom. If you can dare to be a little silly, you will have success with this.
In play, a child always behaves
beyond his average age –
above his daily behavior
For in play, it is as though
he were a head taller than himself.
- Lev Vygotsky