Because you work with children, you see them at play in different ways all the time. At any given moment in the children’s library, you might see them putting on a puppet show, building with blocks, pretending to go on a bear hunt, or playing with an interactive app. Play is an integral part of childhood, and children experience play as intrinsically rewarding and intensely enjoyable. We also know that play in all its forms fosters children’s language, literacy, and cognition. It also provides rich developmental opportunities across all domains. Play is so important to the lives of children, it is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 31 which states that all children have the right “to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.”
Pretend play spaces
The stories that children tell during their play influences their literacy learning outcomes. Pretend play helps young children develop strong narrative abilities. When literacy is embedded into their play settings, children can practice and develop a range of skills that support early reading and writing. For example, when a play area is set up as a pizza parlour, with signs on the wall, menus on the table, and notepads and pencils, children have a chance to practice a range of print-related skills all while having a great time! There are many other examples of play settings in which literacy activities are embedded into the scene. Lots of picture books lend themselves to play settings. For example, the picture book If you give a mouse a cookie could be the inspiration of a fun play space. You would only need a few copies of the book, and kid-friendly versions of some items featured in the story, and you have an affordable, multi-modal play area. You could consider rotating through different stories as a way to introduce children to different story narratives to play within.
Dramatic play in storytime
Storytime represents another avenue for children to engage in dramatic play. Dramatic play involves made-up, imaginary scenarios in which children can take on different roles and act out scenes. Props and costumes can be used to enhance the experience in multi-sensory ways. A recently published article called Playful stories: Exploring the use of dramatic play in storytimes (Campana, Kociubuk, & Hlad, 2023) offers food for thought on how library storytimes might offer opportunities for children to engage in facilitated, extended dramatic play. The researchers examined educator-led dramatic play experiences in two other types of informal learning settings: museums and zoos. The study sought to answer these two questions:
- What can educator-led dramatic play experiences look like in storytime?
- What types of early childhood learning behaviors can occur during these educator-led dramatic play experiences? (Campana, Kociubuk, & Hlad, 2023, p. 1018)
By analyzing video-recordings of some storytimes held in a museum and a zoo, the researchers found that in each setting, facilitators incorporated an oral story into an extended dramatic play experience. The researchers coded the facilitator-led storytime content as well as the behaviour of the child participants into various categories of children’s learning domains. They reported that the dramatic play programs they studied most strongly aligned with both social and emotional as well as language and literacy learning domains. They also found that the main difference between these storytimes and those offered libraries was the amount of time devoted to a single dramatic play experience. They conclude their study by encouraging libraries to consider extending dramatic play opportunities within library storytime structures.
“To offer a more playful learning experience for young children and their caregivers in their storytimes, libraries should consider employing this alternative storytime structure which focuses on an educator-led dramatic play experience as a central piece of the storytime.”(Campana, Kociubuk, & Hlad, 2023, p. 1025).
This article offers children’s librarians a lot to think about. When looking at play as a main driver of literacy growth, we should continually strive to enhance and improve our offerings to children and families. However, it is noteworthy that the storytimes described in the article “Playful stories” were all relatively small, with around 20 children and 10 caregivers, along with 1 or 2 facilitators at each program. These group sizes mirror most preschool, daycare, and kindergarten class sizes in which this type of educator-led dramatic play happens all the time. With anecdotal evidence that post-Covid storytime crowds are surging in many places, the opportunities to integrate extended dramatic play into large storytimes may be somewhat limited. For that reason, it may be worth considering developing alternative storytime offerings dedicated to extended dramatic play based on a specific story and limiting attendance. Dramatic play is firmly established in early childhood research as being highly beneficial to children’s learning across multiple developmental domains. For these reasons, libraries should continue to enhance and create spaces and environments in which children can engage in guided dramatic play experiences.
The photograph at the top of this post is of a small group of children reenacting their own version of a story they just listened to in storytime. What dramatic play opportunities do you offer, or want to offer, in your library? Please share your ideas in the comments!
For further reading on dramatic play, I recommend starting with the following recent articles.
Campana, K., Kociubuk, J., & Hlad, K. (2023). Playful stories: Exploring the use of dramatic play in storytimes. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 55(4), 1015-1027. https://doi.org/10.1177/09610006221111570
Loizou, E., Michaelides, A., & Georgiou, A. (2019). Early childhood teacher involvement in children’s socio-dramatic play: Creative drama as a scaffolding tool. Early Child Development and Care, 189(4), 600-612. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2017.1336165Link
Nikiforidou, Z., & Stack, J. (2020). The wolf was only feeling hungry: Emotional understanding and embodied cognition through dramatic play. International Journal of Early Years Education, 28(1), 50-62. https://doi.org/10.1080/09669760.2019.1685470Link