Learning and Development

“Getting Early Years Role Play Right Takes Imagination”

  •  “Getting Early Years Role Play Right Takes Imagination”

Don’t default to the same tired home corner – get creative and watch the early learning opportunities multiply

I hadn’t visited the school before and was looking forward – as I always do – to visiting the nursery and Reception classrooms. The rooms were bright and colourful; some children were painting pictures, some were playing in the water tray, everyone seemed busy. I asked about the role play area. “Oh, you mean the home corner? It’s over here.” There I saw a tired-looking jumble of plastic pans and cooking utensils amongst old wooden cupboards. There were a couple of chairs and a rug. No children.

I visited so many schools last year where role play was confined to a rather dull ‘home corner’. Often, there were really good things happening elsewhere in the room – but I couldn’t help feeling that the lack of role play led to many missed opportunities for excellent learning.

I’m a great fan of role play because, where it’s done well, there simply isn’t a more fun way to develop a huge range of skills. There are, of course, ‘shops’, each with its own potential for language development. I saw a delightful exchange between a Reception-age garden centre worker and a customer who was purchasing a small plant: “That will be one pound. Put your plant in a sunny place and don’t let the compost dry out!” A teaching assistant joined in: “How about making a care sheet for the plant? Can we do that together?”

In another school, a wonderful pet-grooming parlour, called the ‘Bath and Biscuit’, included cushions for the soft toy pets, together with old hairdryers, a price list, a telephone, an appointment sheet… The children told me they were ‘beauticians’ and had to wear special aprons to keep themselves clean. In a different school, the hospital accident department was in full swing. The nurses carefully put a sling on the teacher, while the receptionist telephoned his home. “Your little boy has hurt his arm,” said the receptionist, “but he is okay. We’re just putting a bandage on it and you can come and pick him up.” (I couldn’t help smiling as the ‘little boy’ was at least six feet tall!)

I love seeing adults and children having fun together in role play. It’s a great opportunity for staff to ask questions, make suggestions and feed imagination. It can also offer insights into early leadership skills: one little girl said to me, very assertively, “I’m in charge of the team painting the train. Here is your paintbrush; you can start at the back seats.” I did as I was told and was praised for my efforts.

Back to the home corner. Not everyone is a fan: one of my colleagues said, “They’ve already got homes. We should use the space to give them the chance to do something more exciting.” Certainly, if you’ve got a mud kitchen outside then there’s little point hanging on to the plastic pans in the home corner (and who wouldn’t rather play in mud!). My personal view is that if you’re going to have a home corner, you should consider how you make it more interesting. In one school, strips of coloured plastic were attached to a hula-hoop, which was then hung from the ceiling. This was the ‘shower’, complete with shower cap, bath brush and sponges, and was surprisingly popular! (The same hoop arrangement would later be modified as a ‘beam up’ station near the spaceship). In another variation of the home corner, a lovely Victorian fireplace and period details such as frames and a lace tablecloth-covered ‘desk’ for writing sparked some amazing conversations between the lady of the house and her maid.

The possibilities are endless. When considering ideas, think about maximising opportunities for speaking, reading, writing, number work, artistic skills, social development and so on. If there’s the chance to dress up, even better – although this can lead to problems, as shown when one little boy, surrounded by various policeman, fireman and train driver uniforms, sobbed, “I just can’t choose what to be!”

I once heard someone say that “an early years setting is as good as the imagination of the staff”. This is certainly true when it comes to setting up role play. Be creative, get involved, promote learning – but most of all, have fun.

Julie Price Grimshaw is a teacher, trainer and education adviser. She has been involved in school inspections since 2001.