When you observe in a Montessori classroom, you may be just as aware of what you don't see as what you do. Where is the dress-up box? Where is the "pretend play?" It's there... it's just integrated into the environment in a way that makes it both more responsive to children's development and more difficult to see.
Between birth and age six, dramatic play contributes to children’s emotional, cognitive, social and physical development. It fosters language and literacy skills by incorporating rich vocabulary and opportunities to make authentic the use of new words through enacted play. It supports developing empathy toward others through the adoption of diverse perspectives, providing opportunities for conflict resolution and problem solving and offering engaged practice in the nuances of relationships with an increasing scope of others. Dramatic play allows for the healthy expression of complex emotions and for playing-through possible mediations. It supports children in the abstraction of ideas as they enact increasingly complex scenarios while making equally complex choices about their own contributions to that play, demanding both the cognitive abstractions demonstrated through representational skills and role playing.
Because dramatic play is driven by children’s development in early childhood, Montessori teachers know to be prepared for its influence across the many settings of a child’s day. Instead of creating specific areas for dramatic play, we understand that children are more often engaging in dramatic play than we may realize. We don't expect it to be limited to a dress-up box. Rather, we expect that children will cycle between enacting the world around them, reflecting upon that world and challenging new understandings built through their own experiences and enactments. Teachers are prepared for and responsive to children’s expression throughout that cycle, as children use dramatic play as one of many modes to understand and make sense of their world. So, instead of offering a dress-up box with costumes of our choosing, we offer the children environments that are similar to the worlds they've already observed at home. Our classroom kitchens have all the same apparatus as their kitchens at home. The buttons they practice with on the dressing frames are the same kinds as they'll find on their shirts or coats. And, if you listen carefully, you'll hear the children enacting multiple roles and scenes of their lives. The child cutting carrots may pretend to be preparing them for a banquet. The child using the knobbed cylinders may line them up as parts of a family. The child constructing the Pink Tower may imagine it is a skyscraper.
What's different about dramatic play in Montessori classrooms is that it's initiated by the child. We understand that enacting roles, pretending to be like the people they aspire to, is an essential part of how children make sense of their work. But we don't presume to know which people those are. Instead, we offer them space to practice multiple ways of being, Watch a child with the Opening and Closing Containers work... you are likely to hear them describing what they imagine inside each tiny jar. Watch a child engaging in the Bank Game... you'll undoubtedly see them take on the persona of a clerk or shopkeeper. This kind of dramatic play emerges from the child and satisfies the roles that individual child seeks to understand better. From this perspective, we see dramatic play as far more than just a messy box of discarded clothing. When children are in an environment that allows them to try on multiple "ways of being," and to develop the skills they need to enact those roles with real tools accomplishing meaningful activity, they are doing more than "playing." They are practicing doing and feeling and acting like what their imaginations have absorbed and, in doing so, becoming the people they aspire to be.