Discover the magic of role-play and how it helps promote student agency in the early years classroom.
Role-playing is a powerful way of enhancing student agency that fills our classrooms with magic and wonder! It allows a child’s imagination and creativity to soar, whilst developing an array of valuable skills; inquiry, thinking, social-emotional, communication and language among others. It builds self-confidence, inspires collaboration and sets the stage for real life problem solving.
The benefits of having a role-play and imaginative play area in the classroom are endless!
As teachers, I believe it’s essential that we understand and know how to role-play with our students first. In the beginning of the year, my Kindergarten students usually need a little guidance with understanding what this type of play looks like. So, don’t be afraid to dress up, be silly and stay in character when you play with your students. At the start of the school year, my K2 class (ages 4-5) had the typical role-play centre with a small kitchenette and table, toy food and a small house/tent. I asked some parents to bring in old hats, scarves, costumes and other fabrics so the children could dress up. I remember playing with them often at the beginning of the year to show them what role-playing looked like. They needed that extra help, since many times they would parallel play without interacting with each other.
As soon as the children were engaged and began playing cooperatively, I’d slowly ease out and observe them. It was a work in progress but soon, they were role-play experts!
Our first unit this year was on “Who we are” and our central idea was “Developing relationships within the community builds our sense of belonging.” At the role-play centre, the children wanted to dress up and mostly prepare food for each other while pretending to be a family. They took care of the dolls and pretended to be mommies and daddies. This was lovely to see and a perfect start! During our unit “How we express ourselves,” our role-playing began to evolve. Our central idea was “Stories can be expressed in many ways to capture our imagination.” After inquiring into different types of stories, we asked the children for ideas on what we could create and add to our role-play centre to act some of these stories out. The children thought of props and costumes that we could use for recreating “The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood” and other class favourites. Slowly, the children started creating different props and stories on their own and suddenly, our role-play centre took a fantastic turn!
Towards the end of this unit of inquiry, which was all about imagination and stories, I brought in a large box. I explained to the children that we could use our creativity to make up a new area in our role play centre. I asked the children to use their imaginations to tell me what they saw…the children saw a castle, an airplane and a rocket ship! They voted and decided to create a rocket ship out of the box. They collaborated to choose the colours and form of the ship and thought of researching on the laptop so we could see what the inside of a rocket ship looked like. We did just that and soon, the children were creating buttons, screens, levers and other parts to make the inside of the rocket ship. After this, the children came up with ideas on how they could play with this new rocket ship. Since we had been learning about the elements of a story, they thought of different characters and problems they could face while playing. Some children had the idea of being astronauts and others thought they could be aliens, so we made astronaut helmets and special alien head bands with antennae. For weeks, the children played in this centre developing intricate plots. Astronauts travelled to different planets, got lost in space and found aliens that became their friends. Sometimes the aliens ate the astronauts and took over the world. Other times it was just a normal kid going to different countries on the rocket ship. Every day a new story, new characters and a new plot. They were hooked!
From then on, they had amazing ideas for our role-play centre for our next units of inquiry. It was student agency in full effect! During our unit “How the world works,” where we learned about movement and machines, the children decided to make a robot lab because they were very much into this type of machine. They decided to bring white lab coats from home, have papers with clip boards for designing their robots and building materials to create them. They created amazing stories here too, in one of these the scientist created two robots, which were two friends from class and then they took over the lab and controlled the scientist, making him create more robots who did lots of funny things in the lab! How creative!
During our fourth and last unit “Sharing the planet,” the children designed and crafted a garden all by themselves, using paper and different crafting materials. They had the idea of being insects and other minibeasts in this garden centre, so we purchased butterfly wings and other minibeast dress up accessories, as per their requests. This has been our role-play grand finale! I have seen how my students have integrated every unit they have inquired into this year during this one role play centre! They have used their imaginations to create stories where all the minibeasts were friends that belonged to a community. In this community of creepy crawlies, problems arose which mimicked real life problems minibeasts are facing. During their play, they have even created machines in the construction centre that help solve these problems. For example, in one of their stories, the human had sprayed something on the flowers, and it had made all the butterflies sick. The ‘bee doctor’ made a special machine to cure all the flowers and fed them to the butterflies. Observing this collaborative and imaginative play full of significance, value and meaning makes my heart sing and consolidates my belief that role-play is indeed a powerful tool for learning that should be nurtured and tended to in all early years classrooms.
As I reflect on the development and growth of my students this year, I can appreciate the beauty and power of their student agency that has come to life, not only in our role-play centre but in all of our learning spaces!
Yaiza Morales is currently a Kindergarten teacher at IB PYP Candidate School, Overseas Chinese Academy Chiway in Suzhou, China. Yaiza is an inquiry workshop leader at her school and has taught for the past 12 years in different countries around Europe, the United States and now Asia. This is Yaiza’s third year as a PYP teacher and she is incredibly passionate about inquiry and play-based learning. She enjoys collaborating and sharing with other educators, so reach out and follow her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/msyaiza_inquiryteacher/