Oliver and Zara, both four, were playing daddy and mummy outdoors. They
made stick “children”, and then Zara said, “Let’s make a banquet for our
children!” Oliver replied, “Banquet! What’s a banquet?” Zara explained, and
they laid leaves on a stump as plates. Then they dished out seeds and
flowers to represent various foods. They were busy for about 45 minutes,
talking all the time.
Many areas of learning were served in this one activity. The teacher
witnessed shared sustained thinking. She saw how Zara and Oliver learn from
one another and use their imaginations in original, creative ways. Their
play showed initiative and advanced social skills in planning, co-operation
Role play is how children make sense of their world, acting out
experiences, ideas or stories. Imagination, which is at the heart of
children’s role play, is more important than knowledge according to Albert
Einstein, “for knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the
entire world.” Role play takes place throughout the setting, indoors and
out. It can be encouraged in a specific area where props to further the
play are provided. Arches, windows and fabrics invite children into the
role play area and cosy nooks allow them to withdraw for solitary and
imaginary play. Natural and recycled materials extend children’s play in
open ended ways.
Learning and development observations from role play
Communication and Language
Listening and attention
Children develop confidence and skill in expressing themselves as
they talk together.
While playing, children discuss their roles using past, present and
future forms of speech. They connect ideas or events with what they
are acting out.
Children who are normally quiet may “talk” on the phone as part of
their role play.
Children imitate tone of voice, body language and expression in
Moving and handling
Role play provides opportunity for children to be active.
While setting up their play area, and throughout play, children
demonstrate gross-motor control.
Everyday “chores” included in role play support proprioceptive
development in natural ways: sweeping, ironing, lifting or pushing.
In role play, children demonstrate fine-motor control as they
handle tools: scissors and pencils for shop labels, spoons and
whisks while cooking, for example.
Personal, social and emotional development
Self-confidence and self-awareness
Children discuss their ideas of what to play, how to organise it,
and their roles.
They work as a group, adjusting their behaviour accordingly.
Social skills and confidence are developed through role play.
Managing feelings and behaviour
Children learn to take the lead, and to follow the lead of others.
They take account of one another’s ideas while organising their
Role play fosters empathy, enabling children to see things from
another’s view point.
Older children imitating adults may write words: making a shopping
list, taking a phone message, or pretending to be a teacher. These
“words” may just be imaginary writing.
Children make invitations, warning signs, or directions as part of
their play. These may be largely comprised of decoration and
Children may be seen counting, adding and subtracting. For example,
when selling items from a shop, children work out exchanges of
goods for “money”. This may include doubling or halving.
Role play includes lots of 1-to-1 correspondence. For example,
children may set the table with one spoon and one bowl for each
Children explore comparisons such as: “You’ve got more than me”.
They begin to estimate and perform simple calculations: “We’ll need
two more” or “ There are hundreds and hundreds”.
Shape, space and measure
Role play includes size comparison: “That bed is too small for
you”, “I need a bigger bowl”.
Role play includes spatial talk: “under the table”, “next to the
chair”, “behind the door”.
Children discuss size or weight of objects, while playing “shop”
Money is a common theme – for example at the hairdresser or
optician: “How much”, “I want more”, “I haven’t got enough.”
Understanding the world
People and communities
Children act out past and present experiences – a new baby in the
family or mummy’s job.
Role play reflects children’s understanding of similarities and
differences between themselves and others, among families,
communities and traditions.
Children imitate body language, facial expression, gesture, tone of
voice, and accent, demonstrating knowledge of differences between
As children set up role-play scenarios, they demonstrate knowledge
of various environments
Children may be seen creating different kinds of homes, for example
a yurt or igloo.
Children show their understanding of how technology is used in
various environments: hoover, television, or cooker in the home;
bar code scanner at the checkout counter; keyboard and phone in the
office; or spanner in the garage.
Children experiment with timers and switches, making sounds and
Children create symbolic technology, for example building a
Expressive art and design
Exploring and using media and materials
Children often incorporate song, music, and dance into their play,
experimenting with changing words, rhythm, and movement.
Children may decorate their role play space with all sorts of
materials. They may add curtains, flowers or natural objects.
Imagination is intrinsic to role play as children represent their
ideas, thoughts, and feelings through their play.
Even a very young child might put a piece of cloth on their head to
“be” someone else.
Children may use symbolic tools: twisting a stick “screwdriver” or using
a block “hammer”.
This article is adapted from a chapter from Play and the revised EYFS, ©
Community Playthings 2015.