WHEN WE THINK OF YOUNG CHILDREN PLAYING, images of dramatic play almost always come to mind. We picture children busy in the dramatic-play corner, baking pizzas in the sandbox, or playing firefighter on the climbing structure. These images often focus on what children are saying and doing as part of the play. However, when we take a closer look at the motor skills involved, we can see a dual benefit. Putting aside the more obvious benefits of dramatic play - such as language and social and emotional development-there are great opportunities for physical development.

Dress-up for Toddlers

Toddlers are just beginning a headlong charge into the wonderful world of make-believe. Almost any event or item becomes the impetus for a new or renewed burst of dramatic play. Provide objects of different sizes and weights for children to use in their play. Oversize stuffed animals can present a real challenge to children as they move them around, balance them, and carry them.

"I do it myself" is a refrain we often hear around our house from Grace, our wonderfully exuberant toddler. While she loves to dress herself (not necessarily in matching clothes), it is often easier for her to dress up in slightly larger clothes. Clothes belonging to her 6-year-old brother, Grant, are among her favorites, since the larger arm and leg holes allow a bigger target for entry.

Encouraging dressed-up toddlers to tumble like clowns or dance like ballerinas gets them involved in creative physical expression, increases their heart rates, and develops physical abilities.

Problem-Solving Preschoolers

Preschoolers can be more creative in their use of dramatic-play props. Setting up a grocery or pizza delivery service, using trikes and wagons, challenges children to find ways to carry things as they use the wheeled vehicles. A dramatic-play prop box with firefighter gear (such as boots, lengths of hose, or hats) can create many opportunities for developing physical skills. Place a large tub of water adjacent to your dramatic-play area, and provide a number of smaller pails for carrying water. Create a "fire" with colored chalk or crepe paper streamers in your outdoor play space, and invite children to "put out the fire." As they carry pails of water from the tub to the fire, encourage them to run without spilling the water, or invite them to form a "bucket brigade," to transfer pail after pail of water from the tub to the fire. Bending, stooping, balancing, lifting, and pouring are all likely to occur during this spirited activity.

Kindergarten Pipeline

Kindergartners can play out a variety of themes that lend themselves to both fine- and gross-motor activity. Using short lengths of PVC pipe and connectors of various types, kindergartners can create elaborate systems to bring water to "city blocks." Children can create buildings or cities from cardboard boxes of different sizes and shapes. Reaching, stacking, and balancing skills all come into play here. Take time to look carefully at your dramatic-play center for physical development opportunities. They're around every prop, box, and set of dress-up clothes!