Since kids can’t go to school, they might as well play school!
This week, to help a little with the #stayhome-induced craziness, I gave a talk to parents of preschoolers about ways to use dramatic play at home.
A hand was raised in a zoom window, and a concerned face came into focus: “All my girl wants to do is play school! She even imitates her classmates, she misses them so much. Should I encourage her to just be herself or is this ok?”
I’m so glad this mama asked that question! Since her girl can’t be in school, of course she is getting such satisfaction out of playing school. What a smart and intuitive way to cope with our new reality!
Our kids are without the routines and the friends, it is totally natural – and great – that they would want to recreate them at home. Here are some ways that you can support – and build on “paying school” at home. This can lead to satisfying dramatic play that can be really bonding and healing too. Even better, because these games can be scaffolded – that means that you can help set them in motion and then walk away while the independent play continues!
Why It’s Cool to Play School
1. Cognition and Play
When kids play, they gain fundamental social-emotional and executive function skills.
Especially for kids ages 3-6, play is a learning tool. Far more important than drilling letters and numbers, and different than learning from a screen, the skills children are building when they “make-believe” are the skills that set them up for successful life outcomes.
“Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges.” – American Journal of Pediatrics
2. Playing School Helps with Social-Emotional Skills
Imitation is the highest form of flattery – but also empathy! Kids learn through observing the world around them and essentially imitating. When they become a teacher, for example, they feel the power and responsibility that comes with that job and will act accordingly. By essentially trying on the characters of the other classmates, kids are experimenting with new ways of relating, listening and learning. They are also given permission – in the safe space for play – to be extra exuberant, really shy, or incredibly goofy..
3. Empathy and School Play
Pretending helps kids with empathy. When we step into other people’s shoes, we learn how it must feel to be them. We grow in compassion. In acting we call this, understanding a character’s “given circumstances”. When kids play school they are inhabiting a variety of “characters”. The more practice young kids get in stepping outside themselves, the more they will grow in understanding other people’s experiences.
4. Playing School can be “Scaffolded”
Playing school not only exercises the imagination, it can also be structured so that adults have an easy point-of-entry into the playing. This is a good thing – experts call this “scaffolding”. It means that we can join in with our kids playing in specific ways that support their growth, but then we can also leave and the playing will continue on in it’s own way.
5. Playing school is uniquely healthy during social distancing.
Playing school can be healing to kids during this time of social distancing. Games with a school-focus can be a great way to create (and continue) positive associations with school. This too shall pass, and when it is time to go back to school, having built all the happy memories of school-related games, will make that transition so much easier.
“Play for young children is creative, spontaneous, unpredictable, and absolutely fun. While play may seem like a frivolous activity, it is an important medium for young children’s learning. It is a significant contributor to the child’s cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development” – Sally Hurwitz, “To be Successful — Let Them Play”.
Ways to Set Up Games of School for Play and Learning
Across the Floor
Kids can play school as different animals or characters that they love. Set up a “home” side of the room and a “school” side of the room. Kids choose an animal to be and move across the floor like that creature. When they get to school, a simple funny task – like singing the ABCs in a mouse voice or counting to 20 like a dinosaur – is the goal at school and then they can head “home” and change into another animal character!
Perks of this game:
- Kids can explore being different characters that they love
- They get a gross motor workout
- This supports executive function skills since they have to plan and remember the different school activities of each character.
You can pretend to be a school teacher, make up a name in gibberish to be extra silly.
Don’t get anything right! Mix up the alphabet, insert names of vegetables when you try to count to 10, identify colors as shapes and shapes as colors.
Let your kids correct and teach you! If you are familiar with the game Silly Shop, this is very similar.
Here’s why I love it:
- This game also serves a sneaky academic purpose. It will allow you to see what your kids know and don’t know, depending on how they correct you.
- Additionally, it lets them be in the driver’s seat. Especially in this chaotic time where there is very little in their conrol, this is a healthy and safe way for them to be in charge.
- Finally, it is a great gateway for goofiness and parent-child bonding.
Whether your kids play this with stuffies, dinosaurs or dolls, this idea here remains the same. Even better if your kid’s school involves all these different “learners” in one class!
- Kids are the teachers in this game and set up a school for their toys.
- Each “student” has a different personality and even different ways they learn.
- The teacher (your kid) has to make a lesson plan for the class and structure the day for them – tailored to their needs
- Young dinosaurs need hunting lessons
- Animal stuffies get lessons in making their sounds
- Dolls need to work together to build a fort
- Whatever your kid dreams up…
This game involves lots of independent play. Kids can even work on the “lesson plan” and collect “homework” from their students! Similarly, all the planning helps kids with executive function.
I love this game since it is great gross motor work.
- Set up a room to be a “school” for a superhero.
- At each area there are exercises that they need to do to get stronger in certain power.
- Kids can make a list of the powers they want their hero to have and the exercises at school that would help them achieve that success.
- A cool craft extension is for kids to make a map of the “school” and draw the goals of the room.
For more inspiration on this, watch this obstacle course video.
Of course, anything played with superheros can also be played with other characters as well!
Kids think of a school friend, a teacher or administrator. They then play a guessing game about that person. Here are some sample questions:
Have you been to their house?
Do they have a sister?
Do they play soccer with you?
Were you at their birthday party?
For more tips on how to play guessing games watch this!
This game is even easier if you have a yearbook, class pic, or any visual reference for the classmates!
Take it a step further (like the girl who inspired this article) and actually transform into the classmates and pay charades. If your child can read, write the names of friends, teachers and other folks from school on paper and pull from a hat! Parents and siblings can guess from there!
Chime in on the comments to let me know the games you love to play school with your kids!
1.Kenneth R. Ginsburg, ; and the Committee on Communications and ; and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Pediatrics January 2007, 119 (1) 182-191; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2006-2697 2. Hurwitz, Sally C. "To be successful--let them play! (For Parents Particularly)." Childhood Education, vol. 79, no. 2, 2002, p. 101+. Accessed 8 May 2020.