Encouraging Dramatic Play in the Early Childhood Classroom
A collection of picture books to guide dramatic play and foster students’ literacy and social and emotional skills.
I have a photograph of myself from when I taught kindergarten. I’m sitting in a chair with a tiara, wearing sunglasses, and holding a cup of coffee, surrounded by my students. No, that was not a typical day. On that day, the students had created a salon and needed a customer. As my nails were being filed and my hair primped, I was surprised (and yet not surprised) how many of the routines and how much of the language connected to this scenario that my students had absorbed and were now applying.
During the school year, the classroom dramatic play area had many incarnations beyond salon; sometimes it was a bakery, or a house, and occasionally even a train. The students’ imaginations were the guiding force for this area; I was there to observe, listen, and support.
In the current pursuit to foster social and emotional wellness in young children, there’s perhaps no better activity to dedicate time, resources, and space to than dramatic play. Dramatic play, in its most familiar setting, looks like a kitchen or housekeeping center. Other programs have assorted prop boxes and hollow wooden blocks.
Whatever a teacher’s resources—whether a temporary area on the meeting rug with milk crates and miscellaneous props or a fully accessorized play housekeeping area—dramatic play is worth the effort. In dramatic play, children must improvise, sustain flexibility, and negotiate wants and needs with their peers in the context of imaginative play. It’s the ultimate classroom community builder.
The following picture books are meant to encourage ongoing discussions about dramatic play in the classroom. These books feature characters who dress up, assume different personalities, and create or utilize assorted props for imaginative play purposes. While these books don’t take place in a school setting, they do suggest ideas that easily adapt to a school dramatic play setting and seamlessly suggest a home/school literacy opportunity.
Picture Books to Inspire Dramatic Play
Amazing Me! Dressing Up!, by Carol Thompson. In this board book, a group of young children discover a cardboard box filled with costumes that they try on with glee. (Preschool)
Andy & Sandy’s Anything Adventure, by Tomie dePaola and Jim Lewis. Friends Andy and Sandy open a steamer trunk filled with costumes and take turns surprising each other with different outfits. (Preschool–kindergarten)
I’m a Frog!, by Mo Willems. Piggie is not Piggie today; today Piggie is Frog. Gerald the elephant becomes anxious. Will he turn into a frog as well? Piggie reassures Gerald that it is just pretend. (Preschool–first grade)
Not a Box, by Antoinette Portis. Rabbit is here to inform you that what you think is a cardboard box… isn’t. In fact, Rabbit is also here to show you that this not-a-box is, among other things, a car, a mountain, and a rocket. (Preschool–first grade)
Bunny’s Staycation, by Lori Richmond. Bunny is none too pleased that Mama is going on a business trip. Clever Papa suggests a “staycation.” Papa and Bunny pack up a cardboard box car and embark on a week’s worth of adventures without leaving the house. (Preschool–first grade)
Best Day Ever, by Michael J. Armstrong, illustrated by Églantine Ceulemans. William prefers structured accomplishments. Anna loves improvised adventure. William has finished his summer to-do list, and he has one item left: “Have the most fun ever.” Could Anna hold the key to having the best day ever? You bet! (Kindergarten–second grade)
How to Find Gold, by Viviane Schwarz. Anna and Crocodile spend the day searching for gold. They make a map, sail a boat, and deep-sea dive. They discover gold on the ocean floor and bury it aboveground for safekeeping. A full day’s work (and play). (Kindergarten–second grade)
I Am Someone Else: Poems About Pretending, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Chris Hsu. This poetry anthology celebrates imagination and trying someone else on for size; subjects include storybook characters, occupations, and makers. (Kindergarten–second grade)
Is That You, Eleanor Sue?, by Tricia Tusa. Ding-dong! Eleanor Sue’s mom is having a very busy morning. So far, a neighbor, a witch, a wizard, a bear, a delivery man, and a cat have come to the door to visit. Why all the visitors? Because Saturday is dress-up day for Eleanor Sue. (Kindergarten–second grade)
Additionally, Literacy Play: Over 300 Dramatic Play Activities That Teach Pre-Reading Skills, by Amy Cox and Sherrie West, is a resource book that suggests how teachers can integrate dramatic play into the classroom with a theme-based approach.