When we think of young children playing, images of dramatic play almost always come to mind. We picture children busy in the dress-up 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 close look at the motor skills involved in performing these activities, we can see a double benefit. When we put aside the more obvious benefits of dramatic play - such as language, social, and emotional development-we find great opportunities for physical development.

Pop-up Play for Infants

We don't usually think of infants and dramatic play together, but the foundations for dramatic play begin in infancy. Peek-a-boo games between teacher and child are quite common, and children delight in the sudden appearance and disappearance of familiar faces. You can, however, introduce novelty to this familiar routine by having brightly colored, stuffed animals disappear and reappear for infants. Accompany the animals with animal sounds and change the position where the animal disappears and reappears to encourage head turning, visual tracking, and visual discrimination. Make up a story about driving along a country road and seeing various animals as you pop the animals up from behind a box or blanket. Add a repeated refrain to the story and you've got a great dramatic-play event for infants. Encourage them to reach and touch, turn and look, and kick and squeal as they participate in the story.

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 dramatic 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 rate, 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 firefighters' 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 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, have them 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 Pipe Line

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 water systems to bring water to "city blocks". They 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! Whatever the dramatic-play activity, encourage children to build on it by finding ways to include opportunities to develop physical skills that stretch their bodies and their imaginations.

This article originally appeared in the November, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.