Role play is vital for your child’s educational development. Jamie Reeve of the Great Little Trading Company talks us through the benefits
Through play, children learn basic skills such as language, creativity, problem solving and self control. They learn how to interact with others, how to express their needs, negotiate and compromise. They figure out complex relationships and learn how to cope with frustration, fear and anger. They explore, test, guess and discover, building the foundations for later learning in science and mathematics. Manipulating objects, running and jumping all contribute to the development of fine and gross motor skills. Play is a fundamental part of a child’s cognitive, social, emotional and physical development. There’s no doubt that through play, children learn how to learn.
In 1989, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recognised play as a fundamental right for every child. But what is role play, and why is it so important for necessary life skills?
Role play typically involves the child recalling a familiar situation, such as a shopping trip or visit to the doctor, and acting it out. Children use their memory skills to recreate scenes they have witnessed and practice solving problems that may be part of those scenarios. Role play promotes verbal communication as children copy phrases they have heard others saying – “that’ll be £12 please”, “nice cup of tea?” and requires the child to develop listening skills and respond in an appropriate manner.
Parents are a child’s first playmates. Games progress from peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek, to more complex activities involving make-believe. These might involve caring for dolls, racing cars along the floor or having a tea party. When parents interact, the play becomes more complex. The adult is teaching the child how to sustain an activity and develop ideas. The tea party develops into a picnic, a feast, a celebration, a party for the Queen! The child benefits from the adult’s extended vocabulary and creative ideas.
From the age of two, some children are able to share role play games with their peers and by three, many are able to engage in cooperative play with clearly defined roles; “You be the King, I’ll be the Dragon.” Unlike the parent-child relationship where the parent tends to lead, play with peers tends to have a more even distribution of power as children have to jointly negotiate the rules of the game – “this chair can be the throne”, “over here is the door”. Through role play, children learn how to express their desires (“but I wanted to be the Dragon”), negotiation tactics (“let’s take turns”) and compromise. They learn how to work in a group and how to behave in social situations – and they learn them in a safe, supportive environment.
Children today play around eight hours less per week than children born in the 1980s. Technology has played a part in that decline, but parents’ desire for children to grasp the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy by the age of five has also meant that some play has been replaced by groundwork for tests or ‘educational toys’.
Which toys are best for role play?
I believe the best role-play toys have multiple uses and can be used by a child on their own or with friends. The best are accessible so the child can spontaneously decide when and how to play. This means toys need to be left out, where children can easily reach them.
Dolls’ houses and toy garages are scaled-down environments that give kids the chance to be in charge. Re-enacting scenarios encourages imaginations to run wild.
Play kitchens are at the heart of role play. While children are using their imagination to mimic the world around them, they’re also learning chopping, stirring, carrying and closing skills, and increasing their vocabulary.
Play shops with pretend food, tills and money all fascinate children. Handling play money can also develop numerical skills.
Play should be enjoyable, never forced, freely chosen by the child and involve a degree of make-believe. But above all, the act of playing is far more important than any end goals.