From Dreaming to Becoming - Why Role Play is such a Powerful Way to Learn

Teacher and students gardening

From Dreaming to Becoming - Why Role Play is such a Powerful Way to Learn

Role Play, also referred to as Play Pretend, Imaginative Play or Dramatic Play, is one of the most powerful approaches to support children’s understanding of the world, stimulate their creativity, and empower them to decide about the nature of their experiences. Creating a role play corner in your early years setting offers space for Child-Led Play which opens the door to self-regulation and life-long learning. It’s a perfect tool for all educators to effectively and consciously support children’s connection with their natural gifts and talents, foster their entrepreneurial spirit, and boost their self-confidence - the pillars of Future-Oriented Education.

Once it’s properly set up, it will serve your children for long as it can be used in many different ways depending on children’s creativity and current needs and preferences. It will also help you save time on planning as Role Play corners offer a solid long-term framework with plenty opportunities to not only support all areas of child development, but also help cover further cross-curricular learning goals.

How Role Play supports Future-Oriented Education

Children are masters of play pretend and they are capable of immersing themselves completely in the role they decide to embody. They identify themselves with and become one with the character of their choice, they fully live and breathe it. They allow themselves to be transposed to a different world where the identification of their choice helps them safely explore, navigate and learn about the world through the eyes of that character.

A full immersion in a given context also encourages children to take manageable risks - they can immediately take on characteristics, skills and superpowers of the person or phenomenon of their choice. Children feel as if they actually posses these qualities and perform and express themselves accordingly without fear and anxiety. This in turn helps build their confidence and children may feel more ready to later on transfer the qualities and skills of their imaginative character onto their own actual person. This is a very powerful way to learn, explore one’s talents and cross boundaries to become a person who you wish or dream to be.

And here's a clear connection between imaginative play and Future-Oriented Education - role play allows children to safely and effectively move from dreaming of becoming someone to actually embodying certain qualities - not in a distant future but right now. What a powerful way to learn and become someone you wish to be!

How Role Play supports different Areas of Child Development

Role Play is a truly hands-on Experiential Learning approach that supports child development holistically. Nevertheless, it’s useful to be able to see how various areas of development can be positively affected by Play Pretend. This may help further understand the importance of role play corners in Early Years provision.


Children can express themselves through Role Play on many levels. They can experiment with different clothing, costumes and objects from everyday life to transform themselves into the characters they wish to become. They can also set a scene to better reflect the context of their play, for example by building a castle, a den, a house, a shop, etc.

Apart from that, children come up with whole scenarios for their play reinventing and adjusting them on the go. They move from a real world to an imaginary one, and mix the two worlds creatively. Finally, they use their whole body, their facial expression, and their voice (actual speech and various sounds) to communicate within their play.

Understanding of the World

Children always observe adults and the world around them, and try to make sense of their experiences. They use their observations and current knowledge and understanding of the world in their role plays often trying to reflect the real world through different characters, jobs, places and contexts. They blend it with the imaginary world and share with other children during their play.

Equipping a Role Play Corner with everyday objects will enrich their play and add a more realistic feel - this will eventually help children develop certain practical skills. Children can learn how to use certain objects or tools, what it takes to perform certain jobs or functions, or reinvent some functions. Having imaginary objects will add more magic, help inspire creativity, and keep the play light. Role plays are also perfect for introducing Cross-Curricular and Multi-Cultural Education.


There is nothing more empowering for a child than deciding about themselves and the nature of their experiences, and Role Play satisfies this need perfectly. Becoming a a knight, a firefighter, a doctor or a princess, using real cups to drink, real pots to cook, or wearing a wig and a fake beard is every child’s dream.

Role Play gives children the power to decide who they want to be as, and plan the whole series of events and experiences that this character will go through. By doing so, they take ownership of their own learning, which is a massive self-esteem booster.

Cooperation, Social Skills and Communication

Even when a child plays alone, they usually talk to themselves or narrate voices for the accompanying imaginary characters. In Role Play there is always some sort of communication present - no matter how many children are playing. This communication does not need to be verbal though, and it will still serve its purpose - narrating the story and shaping the content of their play. And when playing together, children learn how to communicate effectively to work towards the same goal - keeping their play alive and adventurous.

How to set up a Role Play Corner

Setting up role play corners does not need to be difficult, time consuming or expensive. In fact, it can be very exciting both for educators and for children who can be invited to take part in the process too. Instead of investing in ready-made theme-based role play corners (which you can do if you wish to), you can easily design your own creations using the materials that are already available in your setting, and adding more items, structures or furniture later on.

Role Play Corners are a constantly evolving project, and you and your children will want to add more and more inspiring items to further explore the opportunities these corners offer. By observing your children play, you will find out what items they would like you to add. You may even use recycled items providing they are clean, do not pose any danger of injury or cross-infection, and can be safely enjoyed. All it takes is being creative and knowing a few health and safety principles!

Room or Corner

If you can dedicate an entire room towards a certain Role Play Theme, then it’s just great. For example, you may decide to turn one of your playrooms into a Construction Play Area and fill it with play sand and construction play items. If you cannot though, then finding a spacious corner in your playroom should be enough.

Since role play is a creative activity, you may soon notice that the actual play does not need to occur in the initially designated area. It can move on to other areas of your playroom, which is a very natural thing to happen. Leave some space for children to create their own dens and hideaways, and make sure you offer enough resources such as fabrics, rugs and cushions to allow for self expression.


For easier space management and to make it more inspiring for your children, you may organise your role play corners according to themes or topics. Observe what works best for your children, but usually the following ideas are popular with most kids:

 -  cooking / kitchen corner

  • family play
  • knights, dragons, castles & princesses
  • fire fighters or police station
  • shop, restaurant
  • doctor, vet, hospital
  • car repair / garage
  • construction play / building play
  • post office
  • fashion show, travel
  • pirates, treasure hunters
  • and so many more!
  • Costumes, Clothes and Fabrics

    Variety is a must! Mix ready-made costume sets with loose parts such as clothing items, fabrics, shawls, blankets, and accessories. Display them on clothes racks or in boxes for easy browsing. Have some both modern and old-fashioned clothing items with variety of colours, fabrics and textures. Also make sure your items reflect Multi-Cultural variety.

    All objects, toys and clothing items should be regularly cleaned and washed, should be free from strings, sharp edges and small easy to swallow elements to ensure safe play.

    Everyday Items and Imaginary Objects

    To add a more realistic touch, to empower your children further, and to promote independence - add lots of everyday objects. They will always depend on the themes and topics you wish to offer, and the following are good examples - a cutting board, a suitcase, real coins, kitchen pots & cooking utensils, shopping bags, wallets, etc.

    Multi-Cultural Elements

    To promote positive relationships, diversity and understanding of the world, make sure you have plenty of Multi-Cultural elements. They can be traditional items, but also everyday objects such as clothing, cooking or home decoration items. You may also wish to consider local and regional considerations while promoting positive images to help build positive relationships.

    It’s important to remember that when children engage in role play, their main motivation is Self-Expression and Exploration - they do this being inspired by certain features, characteristics or aspects of the character and context of their choice. Their intention is never to exploit, ridicule, offend or diminish a certain culture or tradition - culture as an abstract concept is not yet developed at this stage of child development.

    With this in mind, any play that may seem offensive to adults should be carefully reflected upon by educators. This is to make sure that our personal beliefs and values, and as a result our reaction to children's creative expression, do not negatively influence and limit childrens development and learning. Any play which unintentionally causes upset can be easily corrected by educators - by offering gentle and positive guidance, further facilitation, and proposing activities that can raise childrens awareness of certain cultural significance, rituals, traditions, etc. Any aggressive or concerning play should be dealt with through appropriate and timely use of Positive Pedagogy.

    Safety Considerations

    Role Play space must be big enough for children to move freely and safely. There should be no strings, sharp objects or small easy to swallow elements present. Pay particular attention to clothing items as they might contain strings, small buttons, or decorative elements such as a brooches. Also makes sure you do not provide necklaces or small beads. If you decide to use second hand items, they should all be thoroughly cleaned prior to offering them to your children. And you’ll need to regularly wash and clean all items from your role play area to prevent cross-infection.

    When children play in a creative way, their play space tends to get messy and obstructed relatively quickly, and this can compromise their safety and wellbeing. Sorting items back where they belong after each play and agreeing on safety rules together with your children will help you keep your role play areas safe, tidy and inspiring.

    Behavioural Guidelines

    In their explorations children may sometimes copy different kinds of behaviour they have observed as part of their journey to learn and understand the world. It may happen that the behaviour they choose to imitate is not necessarily on the positive spectrum, and that it may raise concerns amongst educators and parents. For example, children may want to use certain toys as imaginary weapons, or even use toy swords or toy guns to arrest, entrap, or even kill their play character. They may want to become a villain, a burglar or a force of destruction, and their behaviour during this kind of role play will most likely reflect this.

    Such behaviour does not automatically have to be a cause for concern. In most cases it’s a way in which a child explores certain emotions, traits, behavioural patterns, ways of acting, speaking or expressing energy. It’s important that children are given permission to do so, and are offered a non-judgmental support from their educators and parents.

    Offering this kind of support is not the same as promoting or encouraging certain ways of behaving. Rather, it’s a permission for safe exploration in order to understand the complexity of this world, and to familiarise themselves with a broader spectrum of emotions.

    Your role as Early Years Educator is to guide, facilitate, navigate towards, and promote positive models of behaviour on a daily basis. When there is a need for course correction, you should offer it through Positive Pedagogy and a smart use of such tools and strategies as story-telling, circle time, group discussion, displaying positive images, promoting positive ways of communication, or establishing behaviour rules together with children.

    You should be concerned, however, if your children’s role plays regularly lead to displaying aggressive behaviour that goes beyond mimicking and result in bullying, physical or verbal abuse, or physical or emotional harm. Another situation is when you suspect that some children under your care may have access to content reserved for adults - in which case you should discuss it with their parents. When you suspect that your children’s behaviour may signal that they suffer from abuse or neglect, you should continue your observations and follow your setting procedures and local protocols for dealing with such cases.

    Variety and Long-Term Framework

    You can set up your role play corner using the resources you already have available, and then add more elements with time. Observing your children interacting with their play space will give you excellent hints as to what needs to be improved and what items should be added. In the long run you would wish to introduce a few different types of Role Play Corners to offer a wider choice and address your children’s needs and preferences. We can assure you that by doing so you will also establish a robust long-term framework for high quality play-based learning without having to rely on structured activities.

    Role Play Corners are such a delight to set up, and it’s an ongoing project for every Educator. As such, role play areas will bring additional value to your professional practice because you can easily involve your children in helping you either plan them from scratch, or redesign and adjust the existing play spaces. By doing so, you’ll offer your children even more opportunities to take ownership of their learning journey. Yet another wonderful way to provide Future-Oriented Education now!

    Where to Learn More - CPD for Early Years Practitioners

    To learn more about how to use Role Play in your setting, check the ACTIVE LEARNING BOOSTER programme by Natural Born Leaders. It’s a self-paced hands-on online training programme for Early Years Practitioners and Primary Teachers who are ready to offer Future-Oriented Education through the Active Experiential Holistic Learning approach!

    Magdalena Matulewicz and Witold Matulewicz, Founders of Natural Born Leaders and authors of Active Learning Booster programme, have been working with this approach for over 20 years - both in early years and primary education. They have trained lots of childminding settings, play groups, day nurseries and schools where dedicated educators have successfully been using Active Experiential Holistic Learning on a daily basis.

    ACTIVE LEARNING BOOSTER programme has been designed to make sure that as you participate in this training, all key components of learning are in place:

  • knowledge and understanding
  • practical application and on-site implementation
  • evidence of your own learning journey
  • So when you complete this certified CPD programme in full, you will have strong evidence of the quality of your work, what you have learned and achieved, how your skills have evolved, what you have implemented and its quality.

    You will become an empowered, self-reliant, and tool-independent Educator of the Future, and you will be able to offer Active Experiential Holistic Learning at the highest level!

    Exclusive Discount for Morton Michel Policyholders!

    Natural Born Leaders provides all Morton Michel policyholders a 25% discount to their ACTIVE LEARNING BOOSTER programme.

    To redeem your exclusive discount, on the programme webpage choose a number of licences you would like to purchase, click on the Add to Basket button and apply the discount code MM25ALB to claim your 25% off. Click here for more information.

    Please direct all of your questions regarding the Active Learning Booster to Witold from Natural Born Leaders at

    The views and information in this article are provided by Natural Born Leaders and these views do not represent Morton Michel.