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“Let’s have a tea party!”: Drama and its importance in Early Childhood Development

by Reginal Allyn

The beautiful thing about children is how they learn about life and societal norms, among other things, in a natural way through play. A child's innate propensity towards drama is evident as pretend play emerges as early as 18 months of age. Pretend play involves children imagining scenarios, acting out different roles and following the rules prescribed by those roles. 

Role-playing and Improvisation are just some of the Drama skills that children are exposed to in regular Drama classes. In the Early Childhood Environment (ECE), Drama plays a pivotal role in the development of a child’s cognitive, language and socio-emotional skills. Drama is centred on social interaction and promotes peer-based learning and an interactive teacher-student relationship. This allows for children to confidently participate in dramatic activities which also offers opportunities for them to practice important skills with their peers.

The Teaching Artist who facilitates the classes are instrumental in the creation of a safe and secure environment for children to explore, grow, play and learn together. They are more of a guide in the process and create an environment that is child-led and where judgement is not allowed.

As a child's motivation in class is greatly influenced by their learning environment, this safe space promotes autonomy and develops a child’s self-confidence. Drama classes provide ways for children to explore different subject matters in an open environment. In this secure environment that is built on trust and safety, children feel at ease being honest, vulnerable, and are encouraged to take chances and even fail without the fear of humiliation. 

Children in the EC years gain numerous advantages from participating in Drama classes and having a safe exploration space. These classes are not just confined to after school programmes, but can even be used as a tool to teach EC Curriculum such as Numeracy, Literacy, Music and even Values.

Let’s take a look at the advantages of Drama! 

An Outlet for Expression

Children can express themselves freely and creatively through Drama. Engaging in dramatic activities like role-playing, allows them to step into the shoes of different people. This facilitates the growth of their capacity for empathy, emotional and cognitive intelligence, negotiation skills, and the conversion of ideas from thoughts into words and actions. 

Drama also offers opportunities for the development of powerful creative expression strategies. Through partaking in the activities, it increases the child’s interest and motivation to learn about other subjects as they gain confidence in sharing their thoughts in class. 

Development of Executive Function

Executive function (EF) is the set of cognitive skills that allows for self-initiated, intentional, and goal-directed behaviour. Although these skills develop in the early childhood years, they continue to grow well into adulthood and are essential to a child's growth and capacity for learning. Some examples of EF skills are following directions, remembering instructions, working independently and controlling their behaviours. 

Dramatic play provides children with an embodied, contextualised, and playful means of practising these cognitive skills, which can further develop them.

Development of Self-Regulation Skills

Dramatic play enhances a child's innate ability to control their behaviour and increases their receptiveness to outside pressure to behave in ways that are socially acceptable. Children are able to utilise Dramatic play as a tool for introspection and to understand both their perspective and that of others which facilitates the advancement of their cognitive development. These interactions that occur during Dramatic play give rise to building one’s capacity for self-regulation. 

Dramatic play also teaches children another skill that aids in the development of their EF: emotional regulation.

 Emotional self-regulation allows a child to recognize and regulate their own emotions. This is a skill critical to maintaining a calm level of arousal that is necessary for learning. Having adequate knowledge of one’s own emotional states makes it easier to understand the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of others which, in turn, helps children to relate better to their peers and adjust more easily to the social nuances at school.

Language and Literacy Development 

The use of oral language as a tool for social interaction is encouraged through Dramatic play. By interacting with peers in a variety of contexts, children improve their vocabulary, comprehension, reading, and communication skills. 

A child's development of literacy also benefits greatly from Dramatic play. Literacy refers to the acquisition of sounds, words, and language. Through play-based learning, literacy concepts come to life as children are allowed to tell their own stories and connect them to their communities, families, and personal experiences

In Drama classes, children are exposed to various stimuli including signs, newspapers, letters and pictures, just to mention a few. These stimuli help to contextualise words and concepts for them when they are exposed to it. They are then encouraged to experiment with new ways of combining thought and language through play.

This will in turn inspire and motivate them to want to grow their knowledge and to learn how to read and write at all in their own time. 

Cognitive Flexibility 

Cognitive flexibility is the capacity to take into account and pay attention to multiple aspects of a situation. Conflicts that arise during Dramatic play give children the chance to practise making good decisions, emotionally regulate themselves, learn how to compromise, and adopt new viewpoints.

A Drama skill that is widely used in class is Improvisation where a chosen object can be used to represent another object. This is similar to Symbolic Play where a child could use a bowl to symbolise a steering wheel. By participating in Improvisation and Symbolic Play activities, it fosters an appreciation of other people's viewpoints and ideas. With practice, the capacity to take on different viewpoints is internalised which leads to an increased cognitive flexibility. 

Development of Autonomy

When play is driven by children, they have the freedom to move at their own pace, which leads to the discovery of their own areas of interest. As a result, children gain a lifelong disposition to learn as they have complete autonomy over their choices and are encouraged to seek out knowledge by themselves. Children gain a strong sense of identity, self-confidence and a sense of self-efficacy when their autonomy is fully supported through Dramatic play.

So what are you waiting for? Let’s play! 

Reginal Allyn 

Reginal Allyn is an Applied Theatre practitioner who harnesses the power of acting, storytelling, drama, music, and movement to create transformative experiences. By incorporating psychology practices, she designs developmentally appropriate workshops that cater to participants of every age, ensuring their growth and development. Reginal Allyn is a graduate from Singapore Polytechnic’s Diploma in Applied Drama & Psychology (2014) and Murdoch University’s BA in Psychology and Human Resource Management (2019). She was also part of Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Residency Programme as the Resident Learning & Engagement Officer from 2018-2019. In her time there, she had the opportunity to work with, develop and facilitate programmes and learn from a variety of companies and Theatre practitioners.

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