Children’s Role Play Encourages Development and Creativity

September 5, 2012 Published by

‘Child-directed’ or ‘free’ role play is loosely supervised role play and the most common among pre-school children. It provides wonderful insights into the world of the children involved and is an ideal setting for observational assessment of communication skills and other indicators of social development.



Shy children benefit from assuming the identity of another character and undesirable behaviour can be challenged via the assumed character, thus preventing sensitive children from the negative feelings associated with being reprimanded. Helping the children to identify personality traits of the characters they are assuming (e.g. a knight is brave, a princess is kind), will add weight to any subsequent challenge on undesirable behaviour by enabling the adult to ask whether the child thought that a kind princess would hit another person.

It also opens up opportunities for discussion with older children in the setting about how the person who had been hit might feel, and how the princess would feel. They can also be encouraged to suggest ways that the princess might make amends for hitting. This type of activity provides the young children with an early experience of empathy which is hugely beneficial for social relationships and interactions.


In truly ‘free’ role play, children are able to expand on reality and use their imagination to create a new environment.


This is creativity at its purest and is a wonderful, innate skill that is so often stifled during formal education and living in modern, western society. Children who retain a high level of creativity have a head start in science, and maths, as well as the more obvious arts subjects, as scientific reasoning starts with the same question as a child’s creative play: ‘I wonder what happens if….’.

Role play provides a safe mechanism for children to try and find answers to the ‘what happens if…?’ questions in a social setting. So the child who wonders ‘what will happen if I swear?’ can find out, without needing to openly flout the rules and risk being reprimanded personally.


Role play doesn’t have to involve dressing up; other toys can act as prompts for role play activities.


Dolls and teddy bears are great and there are many specially designed puppets for themed role play. Of particular benefit for pre-school children (who are comparatively small compared to the world around them), is anything that provides a miniature world in which they are all-powerful, as this will encourage role play and develop imagination.


Child holding on to bear


Small non-human characters (e.g. Sylvanian Families) can provide an additional barrier against personal criticism whilst enabling children to explore emotions and social situations that they are faced with. The little creatures can be used to re-enact a child’s day – often in free play, children will put the characters in a setting that is relevant to them (e.g. going on holiday, staying with Grandma, starting school).


Allowing the children to play freely with minimal adult intervention is a wonderful learning experience.


In today’s society with the plethora of helicopter parents, it is important for children to be encouraged to play without constant reference to a supervising adult. The social skills which develop during peer play are important tools for a child starting school and can make a real difference to how well a child copes with the transition to school.



In addition, children are free to exhibit natural behaviours and this provides a wonderful opportunity for an insightful observation. In observing the role play, it is important for the adult to be discrete and appear to be occupied with an alternative task, as even pre-school children will alter behaviour if they think they are being watched. However, there may be times when intervention is needed, either to deal with a situation that has arisen or to maximise the developmental opportunities of the activity.




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This post was written by Dr Amanda Gummer

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