By Jen Lindbeck
It is that time of year when the ghosts, goblins, and Harry Potters hit the streets to trick or treat. When my youngest was a baby, we cut arm holes in an empty diaper package, which he wore as a shirt, wrapped a diaper on his head, and called it good. I figured he wouldn’t remember his first Halloween anyway. Later, when my boys were three and five we moved to Salem, MA and I really had to up my game. Halloween is NO JOKE in Salem, MA. The streets are full of families, people sit on their stairs handing out full size candy bars, decorations are everywhere from the spookiest haunted house, to friendliest pumpkin patches. At the end of the night my five-year-old had a duffel bag full of candy. That’s right, a duffel bag. That Halloween in Salem has gone down in infamy. My son was eating his candy for a year after October 31. After all, if you ask any kid what the best part of Halloween is, they will say the candy.
Kids love candy, but I would argue that they also enjoy the camaraderie of trick-or-treating and dressing up in their costumes. And dress-up has everything to do with kindergarten readiness.
When I was a teacher, the dramatic play area was always the most popular. If I put a frilly frock or a helmet in the dramatic play area, every kid would be on the “waitlist” for a turn. They would act out elaborate scenarios, use silly voices, interact with each other, take turns, fight and make up, and use other props in unique ways. Dramatic play has the potential to touch every one of the areas of development used to determine kindergarten readiness – social emotional, physical, language, cognitive, literacy, and math.
Let me paint a picture:
Susie, age four, is playing in the dramatic play area with two other children. She wants to wear the veterinarian coat and untangles the sleeves, slips her arms in and snaps the buttons (although imperfectly). She invites another student to play with her and asks if she wants to pretend to be a sick puppy. Another student asks if he can play with them and says he will be a lion with a hurt paw. “You can’t be a lion! You’ll scare the puppy.” The little boy, looks like he might cry at her rebuff. Susie notices that he is sad and suggests that he can be a friendly lion. The kids begin playing. Susie, places the stethoscope in her ears, and listens to the puppy’s heartbeat. “You have the flu! Take this medicine.” Susie hands the puppy the medicine. The puppy asks what it tastes like and Susie tells her that it tastes like cherries. Susie tells the lion to lay down under the table and fashions a cage using a blanket covering the table. “I am going to put the blanket on top.” Susie picks up the clipboard and writes a “prescription” for the lion, then carefully wraps his paw. The three students continue to play veterinarian, taking turns and playing different animal roles.
Now let’s break it down by domain:
Social Emotional: Susie is demonstrating social emotional skills when she invites a friend to play, notices distress on a student’s face and comes up with a solution to ease his discomfort. She follows expectations, she takes turns, and she interacts with her friends.
Physical: Susie demonstrates fine motor skills by untangling the sleeves on the veterinarian coat, buttoning the buttons, using the pencil to write the prescription, placing the blanket on the top of the table, and wrapping the lion’s paw. As she walks around the dramatic play area, bends, squats down, and negotiates obstacles in her way, she is developing gross motor skills.
Language: Susie engages in conversation as she plays in the clinic. She speaks clearly and uses conventional grammar. She understands that conversation is a two-way street, that there is give and take.
Cognitive: Susie uses symbolic thinking when she writes the prescription and creates a cage using the table and blanket. She demonstrates flexibility and inventiveness as she adapts her play based on her interactions. She engages in sociodramatic play – a form of symbolic play where a child pretends to take on a role of someone else.
Literacy: When Susie writes the prescription, she is not only demonstrating that print has purpose, but she is also demonstrating emergent writing skills.
Math: Susie tells the lion to lay down under the table, then says she is placing the blanket on top of the table demonstrating an understanding of spatial relationships.
If a teacher were to observe the play happening in the dramatic area, a few small interactions could take the learning to the next level, building on skills. For example, If the teacher wanted to expand or reinforce mathematic skills, he or she might introduce number concepts and operations by asking: How many buttons have you buttoned so far? How many do you have left to button? How many buttons are there all together?”
Dress up and dramatic play were the cornerstones of my kids play at home. Costumes littered their bedroom floors and the skills developed in this informal setting are the same as in the classroom. Watching their imaginations unfurl in wild and unusual ways is the stuff of childhood and early learning.
So I say, bring on the batmans, the princesses, the elmos! Have fun! But don’t put the costumes away after Halloween is over. Encourage your kiddos to keep dressing up, exploring, figuring things out, making things up, and learning to imagine together. That way long after the last snickers bar has been eaten and all the cobwebs are put away, your kids are still making use of that surprisingly expensive Wonder Woman costume. Perhaps in the end, the best part of Halloween isn’t the free candy, but the imaginative play that all the costumes have inspired.
Jen Lindbeck has a M. Ed, Early Childhood Education, Curriculum and Instruction from Arizona State University and is the Early Learning Resource Coordinator for United Way of Skagit County.