This week, to help a little with the #stayhome-induced craziness, I gave a talk to parents of preschoolers about ways to use dramatic play at home. 

A hand was raised in a zoom window, and a concerned face came into focus: “All my girl wants to do is play school! She even imitates her classmates, she misses them so much. Should I encourage her to just be herself or is this ok?”

I’m so glad this mama asked that question! Since her girl can’t be in school, of course she is getting such satisfaction out of playing school. What a smart and intuitive way to cope with our new reality!

Our kids are without the routines and friends, it is totally natural—and great—that they would want to recreate them at home. Here are some ways that you can support and build on “playing school” at home. This can lead to satisfying dramatic play that can be really bonding and healing too. Even better, because these games can be scaffolded—that means that you can help set them in motion and then walk away while the independent play continues!  

Why It’s Cool to Play School 

1. Cognition and play go together. When kids play, they gain fundamental social-emotional and executive function skills. Especially for kids ages 3-6, play is a learning tool. Far more important than drilling letters and numbers, and different than learning from a screen, the skills children are building when they “make-believe” are the skills that set them up for successful life outcomes. 

2. Playing school helps with social-emotional skills. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but also empathy! Kids learn through observing the world around them and essentially imitating. When they become a teacher, for example, they feel the power and responsibility that comes with that job and will act accordingly. By essentially trying on the characters of the other classmates, kids are experimenting with new ways of relating, listening, and learning. They are also given permission—in the safe space for play—to be extra exuberant, really shy, or incredibly goofy. 

3. Empathy and school play are related. Pretending helps kids with empathy. When we step into other people’s shoes, we learn how it must feel to be them. We grow in compassion. In acting we call this, understanding a character’s “given circumstances.” When kids play school they are inhabiting a variety of “characters.” The more practice young kids get in stepping outside themselves, the more they will grow in understanding other people’s experiences.  

4. Playing school can be “scaffolded.” Playing school not only exercises the imagination, but it can also be structured so that adults have an easy point-of-entry into the playing. This is a good thing—experts call this “scaffolding.” It means that we can join in with our kids playing in specific ways that support their growth, but then we can also leave and the playing will continue on in its own way.   

5. Playing school is uniquely healthy during social distancing. Playing school can be healing to kids during this time of social distancing. Games with a school-focus can be a great way to create (and continue) positive associations with school. This too shall pass, and when it is time to go back to school, having built all the happy memories of school-related games, will make that transition so much easier. 


Ways to Set Up Games of School for Play and Learning

Animal School: Kids can play school as different animals or characters that they love. Set up a “home” side of the room and a “school” side of the room. Kids choose an animal to be and move across the floor like that creature. When they get to school, a simple funny task—like singing the ABCs in a mouse voice or counting to 20 like a dinosaur—is the goal at school and then they can head “home” and change into another animal character!

Why I Love It: 

1. Kids can explore being different characters that they love
2. They get a gross motor workout
3. This supports executive function skills since they have to plan and remember the different school activities of each character.

Silly School: You can pretend to be a school teacher, make up a name in gibberish to be extra silly. Don’t get anything right! Mix up the alphabet, insert names of vegetables when you try to count to 10, identify colors as shapes and shapes as colors. Let your kids correct and teach you! If you are familiar with the game Silly Shop, this is very similar.

Why I Love It:

1. This game also serves a sneaky academic purpose. It will allow you to see what your kids know and don’t know, depending on how they correct you.  
2. Additionally, it lets them be in the driver’s seat.  Especially in this chaotic time where there is very little in their control, this is a healthy and safe way for them to be in charge.
3. It’s a great gateway for goofiness and parent-child bonding. 

Stuffie School: Whether your kids play this with stuffies, dinosaurs or dolls, this idea here remains the same. Even better if your kid’s school involves all these different “learners” in one class! Kids are the teachers in this game and set up a school for their toys. Each “student” has a different personality and even different ways they learn. The teacher (your kid) has to make a lesson plan for the class and structure the day for them – tailored to their needs. Young dinosaurs need hunting lessons, animal stuffies get lessons in making their sounds, dolls need to work together to build a fort, whatever your kid dreams up.

Why I Love It:

This game involves lots of independent play. Kids can even work on the “lesson plan” and collect “homework” from their students!  Similarly, all the planning helps kids with executive function.


This post originally appeared on Child's Play In Action.