Mental Health and Dramatic Play for Children

October 19, 2017

Drama, as people normally think of it, is an expensive pastime involving sets, props, costumes, lighting, and an enormous number of professionals working as a team. Some of us may think of community theatre or children’s theatre. Some of us immediately think about human “drama” and the gossip we overhear at work or in the neighborhood.

Few people think about human brain development when they hear the word drama, but for thousands of years we have raised our children by telling stories and acting them out. Before television, radio, or comic books, parents and teachers used drama to explain how things work, right and wrong, social history, and cultural nuance. In addition to being fun, drama can be profound and incredibly helpful to children. You also can enjoy it inexpensively!

Dramatic Play

Drama becomes real for us when actors perform well. Technical details such as lighting, music, and props, enhance the actor’s performance. Children naturally believe what they see, since many things they witness are new to them. They are forgiving when the details come out wrong. You may hold a child’s attention by animating a salad fork and using an unusual voice – hold it vertically, and the fork becomes a crown! Hold it horizontally, and the fork becomes… dinosaur teeth? Whale baleen? Robot lasers? Children are deeply appreciative of imaginative, dramatic presentations.

Children also possess natural talents as performers. Performing is a primary way that children explore the world. They often feel comfortable trying things for the first time, an advantage for actors! Children also love to participate and lead this type of play. If you attempt to create a character using a salad fork, don’t be surprised when a child takes over, offers direction, or finds another kitchen implement to join you.

This combination of appreciation, attention, and performance orientation makes dramatic play especially important for children. Playing dramatically often involves the following:

  • Movement – exploring movements helps children become accustomed to their own bodies, develop self-control, and express themselves nonverbally.
  • Sound – exploring sounds helps children develop skills of listening, attunement, self-expression, and volume control.
  • Empathy – exploring characters frequently reveals important roles that we all play, including hero, villain, victim, parent, child, ruler, and trickster.

Dramatic Play and Traumatic Memories

Importantly, dramatic play can also involve traumatic memories or worries that the child sees as important. When playing with children, you may see repetitive scenes that do not progress forward. These scenes sometimes require the help of a mental health professional and usually represent an area in which the child feels stuck. Caregivers can be very helpful when they respond to this kind of play with focused listening, followed by curiosity and a willingness to join the play when the child feels ready.

Dramatic play assists children in exploring new worlds and resolving worries. Here are two things you can do to introduce children to dramatic play:

  • Set out a variety of objects such as kitchen implements (safe, not sharp!). See how many “characters” emerge from changing the movements, orientation, or sounds of the object chosen.
  • Read a favorite story together and use old clothes, hats, or scarves to dress up as characters from the story. Ask the child what will happen next.

Have Fun with Dramatic Play

Remember: you are with this child to have fun and, if needed, to help her explore her own ideas. Avoid a teaching role unless the child tells you to teach her something. Take your time. Enjoy the process. Dramatic play helps all of us learn and grow, even adults like you and me.

You can help ChildSavers facilitate dramatic play during mental health sessions by donating your gently used costumes after you are done celebrating this season’s festivities! To make a donation, contact Sarah Konigsburg skonigsburg@childsavers.org.

 

Bob Nickles is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and actor. He was born in South Carolina and has been moving around ever since. Bob lives on the Northside of Richmond and hails most recently from St. Louis. ChildSavers welcomed Bob to the Mental Health team in 2015 and recently, he became the Program Supervisor for ChildSavers and Greater Richmond SCAN’s Richmond Public Schools Resiliency Partnership. Bob will lead the delivery of clinical services within Richmond’s East End schools and supervise the mental health team.