Why Dramatic Play Is Important for Toddlers

father and son playing dress up in living room

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Dramatic play is a term that refers to the everyday make-believe games kids naturally enjoy. From dress up to dolls to playing superheroes, dramatic play involves different types of games and activities at different ages.

Depending on their age or interests, your child might incorporate elaborate props and join with friends in assuming complex roles in a story; or they might quietly imagine simple scenarios that require no dolls, toys, costumes, or other people at all.

It’s adorable to see kids playing these games, but what you're witnessing when you see your child in the midst of dramatic play isn't just something cute. Dramatic play is actually important to your child's development, supporting intellectual and verbal skills.

Imagination and Intellectual Development

During dramatic play, young children get a chance to relive scenes from their own life — things they've witnessed or participated in. So, you might see your toddler serving her "babies" lunch just like you do or twirling around the room like the princess in the movie she's just watched.

This is a sign that your toddler is starting to be able to hold pictures in her head. It's the first step towards more complex play and symbolic thought, which you'll notice in activities such as:

  • Engaging in complex games with other children: Around age 3, children begin to move away from the parallel play and start interacting with peers and taking part in complex games where they collaborate and have a shared perspective. This lets them practice more grown-up interactions. It's one of the ways they try to make sense of the world around them. For instance, your child might play teacher while her friends act as students. She may lead them in a favorite song, "teach" them a lesson, or declare it play time...and all the while she is improving her ability to communicate and think logically.
  • Imitating others: At first, your toddler might mimic your exact actions, but as he develops more advanced thinking, he won't just reenact what he's seen; he'll create new versions of a story. So at first, he may pretend he's shopping just like mommy, and later he may line up his stuffed animals and go shopping for pets.
  • Practicing higher-level thinking: What separates dramatic play from more passive games is that your child is involved in spontaneously creating something new. It's a deceptively simple activity that requires young children to plan, organize, and problem solve.
  • Using creativity: Your child might relive the same story over and over, each time bringing something different to the scenario to make it better or different.
  • Using play items to stand in for real things: Thus, a bowl becomes a hat or a stick becomes a phone.

Your child may also begin to try and entertain you with these games. The first time your little one rushes through the house pretending to be a train will make you laugh, so he is sure to try and do it and similar things again and again to get that same response.

Make Believe and Verbal Skills

Imaginative games help young children sharpen their verbal skills because it allows them a chance to use those skills. Compare a game in which your toddler is pretending to examine a teddy bear like a doctor.

They may (perhaps with just simple words) tell the bear to open its mouth or let it know a shot is coming. Compare that to an activity like throwing a ball or watching a video in which she doesn’t need to use words. Some of the signs of verbal skill-building during dramatic play include:

Making Associations Among Objects

As young children manipulate random plaything and organize them into a game or storyline, they begin to group the objects in their head. Studies show that dramatic play seems to help children be able to create common and unusual associations between playthings.

For instance, your toddler might naturally see a connection among all of those cups and spoons in a tea set, but she will also begin to see a connection between the plate in that tea set and the round flat disc that was part of a board game she pulled out during play time as well. This is the start of her being able to use common descriptive words for like objects.

Talking Out Loud

Try to sneak a look at your toddler as they're playing independently. Without needing adult intervention or guidance, they may naturally engage in uninhibited storytelling or thinking out loud.

Researchers call this "egocentric speech" because it's all about your child — he doesn't care what others have to say or need, he's in his own world. This allows your child to hear his own vocalization of words and play with the sounds of words on his own. This can encourage a child to experiment with words (be they real or made up) and build confidence with his own speech.

Talking More

There has been a surprising amount of study done on pretend play among children, and one of the things that have repeatedly been seen is that a child who starts narrating and building upon a story will talk more and more.

They might just be thrilled by the sound of their own voice, or, as in the case of older children, theymay get caught up in the story and continue adding to it. Children who have lots of time to practice talking in these imaginative situations may talk more in everyday conversation as well.

How to Encourage Dramatic Play

Dramatic play comes naturally to children, but in an age of constant stimulation, TV, electronic games, and organized activities, young children may actually have a limited amount of time to flex their imaginations. To help your child draw the benefits of imaginative games, try these quick tips:

  • Allow your toddler time and space to play independently and initiate her own dramatic games. That may mean turning off the TV, removing electronic toys from the play area, and letting your little one explore her toys without guidance or intervention.
  • Be willing to participate at least occasionally in some of his make-believe play. For instance, you might join a tea party or help him dress up like a cowboy, but only join in if you're asked.
  • Keep some key dramatic play props on hand. Kids don't actually need much to create imaginary worlds and elaborate storylines. My toddler is happy to turn the cups and bowls in my pantry into castles and racetracks for his cars. But he also spends long periods of time "talking" as he builds worlds with his Lego Duplo blocks, and when I'm making dinner, I pull the play kitchen into the real kitchen so he can cook alongside me. Toys like these spark creative activities and encourage imaginative play.
  • Try to arrange times for your child to interact with other children. If your child is in a daycare program or has siblings, you have this one covered, but for other children, you might want to join or start a playgroup. While social interaction is not a necessary component for dramatic play, it does add an element to the play that helps build language and social skills.

Dramatic play is also known as symbolic play, imaginative play, and creative play. Examples include a child who loves to dress up like a mommy and feed their dolls as part of dramatic play or a toddler who imagines they are a scuba diver or superhero..

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Maureen Ryan
Maureen Ryan is a freelance writer, editor, and teaching consultant specializing in health, parenting, and education.