Saturday 4 December 2021

Guest blog: Role Play as a Vehicle for Learning by Annalise Doe

Annalise Doe writes:

Development Matters looks to improve outcomes for children aged 0–5 years old, with a particular focus on the importance of speaking and listening skills. The new framework has 2 goals: ‘listening, attention, understanding’ and ‘speaking’. The need for quality adult–child interactions is also highlighted.

Having co-owned and managed a day nursery, worked as a lecturer in childhood, and having the benefit of hindsight, I would now base provision for 3- to 5-year-old children solely around role play. Role play, in its many forms, is a key way in which we can promote and enhance all aspects of receptive and expressive language.

I remember attending an in-depth, reflective day of learning around role play, when training was free, in abundance, and of a high standard. It confirmed my own view on the benefits of role play and its learning potential.

The trainer recounted how, as a former OFSTED inspector, she had peered over the wall of the playhouse where the children were playing ‘hospital’. She started to question the children on what they were doing and about their play. The children were polite and tolerant towards this unfamiliar adult who had joined, uninvited, in their play. She continued questioning and eventually asked: ‘Can I join in? What can I be?’. One little girl, stethoscope in hand, looked up and told her: ‘You can lie down over there, you can be dead’.

This led to reflection by the practitioners on their own input during role play – and one that has remained with me. Are we intervening or interrupting when we engage with children during their role play? We know that this type of play is of a deep level – where children are assigning roles, listening, negotiating, discussing, and finding solutions to problems, playing out experiences which are meaningful to them and engaging in quality interactions with each other. So how do we enable children to be in charge of their own play, yet scaffold and extend their language?

Every setting needs to have a home corner that remains constant and consistent. This space does not change into a spaceship or cave or garden centre; it stays as the home corner. This is the one place that all the children have experience of and can explore in safety. This is the place where all practical life activities can take place, which address many of the skills children need to learn, across the foundation stage and all areas of child development.

In play, children act in a different way to their ‘being 3, 4 or 5’ way. For example, the children will readily queue to buy something from a shop, or to fill up their car with petrol, but will struggle to queue up for outdoor play or take turns on the favoured bike. In role play children practise self-regulation. They will listen and take turns speaking in the home corner, yet may dominate and vie for adult attention during small group conversations.

Take a typical morning in the home corner. The children prepare a meal, they talk about what they are going to eat, and they gather up enough chairs for everyone to sit at the table. They recount what they had for tea and talk about their likes and dislikes regarding food. They make their own playdough food and weigh and pack it. They decide who will be who, including the family pet, and set off for a walk. On the way they go to the shops (and sometimes the moon), collecting objects from around the room which symbolise other things. They share, co-operate and talk throughout the play. They fall out, negotiate and build relationships. They pick up a book and read to each other, playing out being teacher, mummy, daddy, granddad, and baby. They talk about the pictures in frames on the wall and pretend to take more photos. 

They are practising and playing out all the things that they can within the confines of their own experience. But they cannot take this any further without scaffolding by a skilled adult.

So, how can we promote listening, attention, understanding and speaking? Sometimes, it is with the addition of a physical resource. Last week, the children were showing an interest in the rubbish truck. This was observed in the way they were collecting and dumping the majority of the loose parts and construction blocks into one enormous heap. I bought in a recycling sack full of boxes, catalogues, junk mail and added Tetra Paks too. I left the sack on the patio then observed as the children discovered it. They wondered: ‘Who left this here? What’s inside?’. Then with glee: ‘It’s rubbish! Let’s make a dump!’. One hour later the children had talked about recycling, rubbish bins, ‘collected cars‘ and driven the rubbish around the town – and built a rubbish lorry with the large blocks. I intervened as the play was naturally winding down by asking what we should do as the rubbish truck had broken down. They sorted all the cardboard into one pile and all the paper into another, with the suggestion that we could drive to the rubbish dump. They had put the Tetra-Paks with the card and I explained that they couldn’t go in the same recycling bag where we live… Lots of talk and understanding from a simple sack of recycled objects. Quality role play provision need not cost a lot – deconstructed role play works well.

This week and until the end of term our key text at nursery is The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. The children will have their constant home corner and in addition there will be a post office. This is the additional resource intervention which has been added to support their play and learning. Some of the children will have visited a post office with family. Others will not have, especially since most communication nowadays is through email and text. But most of the children will have had experience of mail arriving at their house or collecting it from a letterbox. 

There will be wrapping parcels, making cards and writing letters. There will be listening to stories and retelling parts, linking them to well-known nursery rhymes and books. Adults will role model post office counter workers and sell stamps and weigh parcels. Once the children have grasped this, adults will offer problems for the children to discuss and solve such as ‘the card is too big for the envelope’, or ‘I want to send this jelly to my friend in France – what can I do?’, all the while building vocabulary and reinforcing concepts. Alongside this, the children will make and write cards for residents in a local care home and receive some back. In non-covid times, we would invite a post person in to tell us about their job.

I notice there are many wonderful role play areas in early years settings, where realia take centre stage – children love to use real objects: play somehow becomes more meaningful. Learning takes place indoors and out too, through the use of mud kitchens and loose parts. Through careful planning, role play can cover many areas of development, providing an excellent vehicle for learning.


Annalise Doe

Nursery Practitioner at Little Orchard Children’s Nursery, Lymington.




  1. Extremely perceptive, thank you, and a great help.

  2. Thank you so much for giving this useful information
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  3. Interesting perspective! Role-playing as a vehicle for learning certainly resonates with my experience as a used car buyer in Melbourne. It's a journey filled with unique challenges and learning opportunities. Thanks for shedding light on this creative approach to education.