The more I think about family play, the more irritated I seem to get. The only role-play/dramatic play that appears as a stand-alone area and it doesn't seem to be vanishing any time soon. It's a mainstay of traditional play areas in an early childhood environment and yet it provides perhaps the least value in terms of educational/learning outcomes. Great - you can make pretend cup cakes while dutifully setting the table, putting the plastic baby to bed and then finally finishing the ironing....remind you of a certain time period? The 50-60's comes to mind. Added to that the aesthetic appearance of the family-play area almost certainly defines it as a gender specific area solidifying the continued dominant family structure - the nuclear family.
But what about other types of roles? How are other family, community, and fantasy roles catered for in early childhood? Through plastic hard hats in carpentry areas or magnifying glasses in science areas you might say? A pretty underwhelming attempt at linking role-play to other more valuable areas of play I would argue.
The only other 'area of play' that might see substantial role-play or fantasy play is the typical literacy area where the books are generally stored. In these books children might become the character - The small brave mouse from the Gruffalo, the Witch on the Broom, One of the monsters gnashing their teeth in Where the Wild Things Are, or even (despite the current war on princesses) Cinderella finding her way to the ball. But do we really even see meaningful role-play happening in our literacy areas. Is it that children are trying to become the character or just looking at the pages wondering if now's the perfect opportunity to throw it at the tower of blocks on the other side of the room?
Role-play can be the most rewarding, meaningful, 'learning' kind of play where imagination is the key function and the parameters for the stories that are woven are endless. And yet role-play is probably the most under resourced type of play in an early childhood environment, apart from of course the dreaded family play area. I don't know about you but I have never seen lab coats, protective eye wear and different chemicals (e.g. flour, water, dye) set up in an elaborate laboratory for children to really explore what it would be like to be an actual scientist discovering a new concoction. I've never seen areas specifically designed to cater for super hero play where Captain America, Iron Man and Wonder Woman feature on the wallpaper, icons to future super heroes! With materials and adhesives to make their own super hero costumes and capes, cut outs of infamous villains, and most importantly, teachers who are involved in the play just as much as the children are.
Why is it that the only role-play we seem to be interested in as teachers is the most antiquated, stereotypical, gender specific role of them all?!
Well here is my challenge to you. Delete the family play area, remove it from your learning space and replace it with something inspiring, an area that will get your children's brain juices flowing, their pulses buzzing, and their imaginations firing. Here's a few for you to consider:
- Batman's Lair.
- A local fire department.
- A local police station.
- A pirate ship.
- A coral reef.
- A theatre with stage, costumes, rotating props and open ended storylines.
- A hospital.
- A cafe or Deli.
- A dragon's den.
- A toy maker's workshop.
- The peach from James and the Giant Peach.
- Different countries from around the world.
All perfectly viable role-play options instead of the traditional family-play area. And you may end up asking me, "Garrett, why are you so against family-play?" And my answer to you would be this - There are so many more alternatives that will spark children's imaginations and curiosity more, that promote inclusiveness and gender neutrality and that are just way cooler.
So when you start your day tomorrow or the next day and stare blankly at your family-play area preparing for one of the kids to make a cup of coffee or a chocolate cake for the 365th day in a row, consider what could be happening in that area instead....