________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 9. . . .October 30, 2015


Dramatic Play in the Early Years.

Elizabeth Coffman.
Markham, ON: Pembroke Press, 2015.
96 pp., trade pbk., $24.95.
ISBN 978-1-55138-307-1.

Subject Headings:
Early childhood education-Activity programs.
Drama in education.


Review by Jocelyn A. Dimm.

*** /4


As in any good story, dramatic play includes a structure, participants, a physical environment, and things that happen, but, unlike independent play, it is a distinct form: a partnership between teacher and learners. Dramatic play is not to be confused with theatre. There is no set script, lines to be memorized, or audience to watch and listen. Dramatic play does, however, borrow from children’s natural understanding of play and from the willing suspension of disbelief that we experience in all forms of effective theatre. Because dramatic play is about process rather than product or performance, the teacher is much involved in planning with children in order to help them discover the complexities of the human journey and develop empathy towards others and themselves.

Most drama curricula state something like this: As students live through experiences of others in imagined situations, they learn to understand a variety of points of view and motives and to empathize with others. This exploration of the “as if” in roles and worlds will help students deepen their understanding of humanity and of issues of equity and social justice. Students will also learn to use language effectively to communicate a character’s emotional state and point of view.

It is in the transaction that dramatic play heightens the learning experience. We cannot expect children to fully comprehend unless they experience their learning in ways that deepen their understanding. That is why dramatic play is such a valuable approach for children. It is about living through an experience. It invites children to explore their learning from inside the story, whether the story is familiar, historical, leading into a science investigation, or based on children’s own experience. The difference between storytelling and dramatic play is in the children becoming the story, living in the lives of the characters or animals, bumping up against the issues and tensions that the story brings into the foreground. (p. 7)


Coffman’s approach to learning through dramatic play is not a new one. Over the years, many education dramatists (Slade, Bolton, Neelands) have offered extensive, insightful written materials, guides as such, to the theory and practice of dramatic play in the classroom. Many of these education dramatists (Booth, Swartz) have focussed specifically on curriculum, story drama, and early classroom experience, often framing the dramatic engagement into easily accessible lessons and activities for teachers. So what does Coffman offer to educators, especially early childhood educators (the intended audience), in her book, that sheds new light on the dramatic play curricula?

     The content in Coffman’s book is laid out in seven chapters that begin with a good argument for the use of dramatic play as a teaching tool in the early classroom (Introduction), and then continues to explain how that dramatic play (creative) process works, the value of dramatic play within the classroom, and the role of the teacher (Chapters 1, 2, 3).

     • Chapter 1: The Creative Process, includes Thinking Imaginatively, Pausing to Reflect and Experiment, and Your Role in the Creative Process. One example of dramatic play is offered in a drama activity entitled “Regaining the Castle”:


It was June and the children in the Grade 4/5 class were in play mode. Recognizing this shift in their focus, their teacher invited the dramatist into the classroom to explore a very open ended dramatic story. The children had many suggestions for the theme of the play – everything from zombies to explorers in outer space. Many of the ideas were good, but not until one child suggested that the story take place in medieval times did consensus begin to build… One student suggested that the story begin in 1242. Class members all agreed and shared briefly what they knew about the time period. Some information was more accurate than other information, but the dramatist and the teacher were confident that with further research, the children would gain a clearer picture of medieval times. (p. 15)

     The section, Regaining the Castle, goes on to explain and explore how the students built the dramatic play through working segments entitled: Developing the story through drawing, Identifying characters, Learning about castle life, From fiery distractions to secret tunnels – trying out solutions, The fluid playing of roles, and The fruit of creative energy.

     • Chapter 2: Beginning Dramatic Play, explores areas such as: Working as a Whole Group, The Willing Suspension of Disbelief, and Warming Up to Play Together: Strategies. Many of the dramatic techniques discussed here are essential to dramatic play, especially the students’ willingness to suspend disbelief as a group drama is a process that relies on the collective imagination of the participants. Once again the latter part of the chapter offers an example of a dramatic play, this one entitled The Rainforest.

     • Chapter 3: The Importance of Practice, includes Working towards Focus and Control, Physical Games and Activities to Promote Focus, and Side Coaching. Here, the explanation of how to implement the dramatic technique of tableaux (p. 32) is offered in detail.

     The latter chapters of the book offer a collection of strategies, story dramas, and curriculum based activities that are focussed on learning through the dramatic play process (Chapters 4, 5, 6). The final chapter focuses on the dramatic strategy referred to as ‘teacher in role’ (Chapter 7) (not to be confused with the role of the teacher, as mentioned above) explaining what this strategy is, how this strategy works, and why this strategy is important to the success of dramatic play in the classroom.

     • Chapter 4: Building Belief, includes valuable information for the classroom teacher on how to practice dramatic play, with Using Space to Help Suspend Disbelief, Using Narration…, Using Rumors…, Using Research to Supply Detail. In this chapter, an example is offered for transforming the space, a classroom, into a dungeon as chairs became bars, and bookcases became prison walls.

     • Chapter 5: Finding the Story, develops areas such as Walking with Words: Working with a Story Text, Staying inside the Story, and Choosing a Story. This chapter is focussed on the use of specific stories as drama process (i.e., Where the Wild Things Are, Cinderella, The Mitten), especially where children find themselves within the story drama.

     • Chapter 6: Playing Inside Curriculum is devoted to investigating social studies, science, and language arts through dramatic play. Here, sections include: Establishing a Framework for Investigation, and Getting into the Curriculum Story: Approaches.

     Each chapter (with the exception of Chapter 6) includes a section entitled “Your Role” that refers to the teacher and discusses the teacher’s role appropriate to that chapter, such as: Your Role in the Creative Process, …in the Beginning of Play, …during Practice, …in Building Belief, …within a Story, and in the final chapter, …as Teacher in a Formal Role. Each chapter also concludes with a summary of the main strategies that have been explored in that particular chapter.

     In this text, Coffman includes many of the necessary elements to create dramatic play in the classroom; however, her book reads more like an action research project than a working manual for classroom teachers. Coffman refers more than once to the dramatist and teacher collaboration in her book: “The dramatist showed the children four potentially magic symbols that she and the teacher had chosen ahead of time” (p. 5). A classroom teacher, who does not have at least some background or experience in drama education, would be hard pressed to teach dramatic play using this book as a stand alone resource. In other words, a teacher would need some time to read through Coffman’s manual and gather other resources in order to proceed with dramatic play with the students. Having said that, Coffman does make reference to a few additional resources in the reference section of this book that would provide the classroom teacher with the necessary dramatic framework (including warm ups) to facilitate a dramatic play experience on their own. One such text to which she refers is David Booth’s Story Drama. A more extensive list of classroom drama teaching references would have been appreciated.

     Coffman, in Dramatic Play in the Early Years, demonstrates her expertise in the field as a consultant working in schools with teachers and children who are exploring learning through dramatic play. This book would make a good supplementary text to use alongside resources, such as, Booth’s Story Drama and Swartz & Nyman’s Drama Schemes, Themes, and Dreams.

Highly Recommended.

Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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