The importance of role plays for children (and us…)

Role play involves imagination, and …

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Albert Einstein

When children do role plays, they naturally become someone or something else. Role play stimulates their imagination and “enhanc(es) their social development, encourag(es) friendship through cooperation, listening and turn taking”. Therefore, role play is a really vital activity for our children. It is no surprise that child therapists use play therapy to help children process and cope with difficult situations and experiences.

Our children can learn many skills and attitudes during role play, they learn how to be co-operative (teamwork) and be empathetic with others. They can learn to express all their feelings: it is very interesting to see what they catch up from only observing us or the world around them! You can tell by observing them role playing what they’re going through, what they struggle with and what they are processing at the moment. They also can learn about other cultures and improve their language and movement skills.

During role plays our children can re-experience school activities like literacy and numeracy. In the playing shop, our children can “encompass all the aspects of the curriculum”. They can learn about money, about politeness and the right way to ask questions and respond etc. Role play can help our children to make sense of their world.

In her article “Role Play in Early Years Settings“, Julie Meighan points out the importance for preschools to “provide children with the opportunity to develop their imagination” through role plays. But in order to make this happen in the most natural way, we need to let the child take the lead so that they can be creative without us interfering. We also need to give them space and time to play.



“Imaginative play not only aids intellectual development but also improves children’s social skills and their creativity. In addition it gives children a chance to play out events that they have observed or experienced in real life.” And this means also situations they might have some problems to deal with. In fact, role plays can help to “explore moral issues and problems safely”.

I’m always amused when I see and hear my children having role plays and imitating a grown up, saying the things we use to tell them. By interiorizing our roles they become little adults, and I think that by playing, they get to understand us better.

Also, by getting into the future or the past, the role play permits to visit or re-visit places and moments our children need to handle. They can travel anywhere, in the real world or in a very fictional one, where people have special powers or things just are not like normal…

Role plays can also help our children to cope with change in the future: preparing for a move, a change of school etc. becomes easier through role play where they can visualize and literally play their role in the future!

Role play: with adults and children

What I find very interesting in role plays with my children, i.e. when I or other grown ups are involved in the play, is that we all have the opportunity to understand different points of view simply by acting. We become more open-minded, more flexible, empathetic. 

If I play the role of a baby or a child and one of my children plays a parent or a teacher, I relive how it feels to be the “little one”. And sometimes we adults get to know what our children retain from what we teach them, how they feel about the way we talk to them, the way we behave.

During these role plays, when our children play our part, it’s like we were looking in a mirror. Personally, I find these role plays very helpful as I get to know what bothers my children, what they are afraid of or what they are particularly proud of. They have the opportunity to express their fears and needs without being judged. They can also exaggerate reactions: it’s only a play. Personally I would encourage parents to stimulate role play in their children, especially when they are going through difficult times.

Role play gives us the unique chance to meet our children in an imaginary world and to address problems in a way that helps us and our children not to get into the “parent-child” mode and keeps situations, words, behaviors in a more healthy perspective that allows us to address issues directly.

Have you played a role play with your children lately? What are your experiences with it?






Please read this interesting study about the “Role of pretend play in Children’s Cognitive Development” by Doris Bergen, professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.



27 replies »

  1. Imaginative play is very important in our family. When my older boys were young they didn’t watch TV at all, so most of their waking hours were filled with role playing various characters. This is still true with my little son, but we have less stamina to play for long periods of time. I am amazed how many families don’t play with their children, but schedule them for so many activites. They are missing out on amazing learning opportunities and ways to get to know their children better. Nice post.

  2. You’re so right! I love this playtime with my children! Especially when we have had a very busy and hard week it’s really relaxing to “act” out whatever we want. This weekend my kids rediscovered their puppets and improvised several puppet plays: it was wonderful! – We did the same with our kids about the TV. Now they’re older but are allowed to watch TV only during the weekend, if it’s bad weather and they’ve played outside already, done homework etc. Or on special occasions. – Thanks Nate, for stopping by 😉

  3. Role-play has an important part in ESL as well, however, not as important as it should. One reason may be that by the time small kids go to school, or to secondary school, they have forgotten the joy of it. In most classes we wouldn’t encounter role play, although several subjects could use it, for instance History, Geography, but also Biology, or Physics as well, then foreign languages could also build up on this. But my feeling is that most EFL/ESL teachers in schools neglect role play. A real pity.

  4. Thanks for this very precious comment! I totally agree. My children often play in the language they talk at school (english) and I participate too. This gives me the chance to help them a bit with the language (as my daughters still do lots of code-switching). I think role- play is great for every subject. You just need a bit of imagination. For example, imagining a flight in a spaceship around the earth, exploring geography, learning about gravity etc. I think children can make a better connection between the things they learn at school and the real world through role play. It’s such an easy way to make them reflect about what they’ve learned. – Have a look at or and But I’m sure you have other resources?

    • Absolutely! That’s what I had in mind. Thanks for the links too. Unfortunately, I can’t come up with other resources, I’m not teaching nowadays, as you know and I can’t follow very many other lines. Perhaps later I can come back with something. Drama (your first link) is also a slightly different, but very useful means that most teachers neglect, though it could be used for some subjects very well. But I’ve always felt role-play a superior method for languages above, especially, grammar-translation, or audiolinguaglism. But let’s stay with general use for small children. I wish you a lot of happy hours with them.

      • Thanks, I have and I will have happy hours with my kids doing role play and I really hope that they won’t stop enjoying it. And please, if you find other resources, let me know. – About the grammar-translation: I did struggle sometimes with my students and now regret that I didn’t find a way to help them with role play… I should have known earlier about the benefits of it.

    • Thank you so much for your input! That’s great! I love the idea to turn my kitchen into a cafe or restaurant! As for the buy nothing challenge: I’m very proud that I managed so far. 🙂

  5. I know this is an old post, but I’ve just started digging into role play that includes both adults and children, and I want to say that I completely agree! I’ve recently done a professional role play game with my son (this event in my town:!rollspelet-om-vastmark/cw254), and I have to say that it really opened my eyes to how expansive his imagination can be. Doing something like this with him was a great way to spend an afternoon together, and he’s been talking about it constantly since. I’m just hoping to find more activities like it, and would really encourage others to do the same!

    • Thank you very much, Andy. Yes, I wrote this post a while ago, but it’s still valid. I do role plays for fun sometimes, without introducing it as an activity, just out of the blue. Being very spontaneous helps to communicate doubts, fears and frustrations without thinking abou them and for others to share them in a not-all-too-serious way. Especially with teenagers I think improvisation can be liberating as they often have to be very organised and schematic in their thoughts because of the requirements at school (tests, exams etc.), so spontaneous role plays can help decompress, get rid of some stress.

    • Thank you very much for your comment! Yes, play can help also adults learn in a more fun and engaged way. As teachers we can and should explore all the “channels” that help our brain “connect the dots” and enhance the learning. – I see that you are at a school? Are you using role play in your school too and if so, what kind of role plays do you use?

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