Scaffolded Social Dramatic Play

In our current Tracks class (4 and 5-year olds) we have pulled out all the stops to build up their social language and connections expressed through play. We started with quite basic of ideas, “pretend you are a…” and progressed through to more complex overtures for play. The progress they have made is quite astounding.

This is really fast race car in the garage for repairs.

This is really fast race car in the garage for repairs.

With most children, the adult intervention/presence in social dramatic play is kept to a minimum or appears as almost seamless scaffolding, but with this particular class it is necessary for the adults to actively model the give and take of play arcs. So there you will find me gamboling and growling about the floor like a bear or actively taking on a character in a play arc. For instance, yesterday I was a dissatisfied customer at the auto mechanics.

This kind of proactive, purposeful, and pervasive (three Ps!) intervention is quite necessary for children who are still developing the language of play. Children on the autism spectrum or those who struggle with the “now and then” concepts featured in the development of executive function and other aspects of self-regulation including motor planning need this extra boost in order to grasp the finer points of social dramatic play. The language of play (verbal, non-verbal, situational, and awareness of self and others) is how humans connect not just to each other, but with ideas and action. It has been a primary focus for the past two years with this cohort and there are so many success stories to tell!

This post will describe one method we recently employed…”The Improv Bag.” Every teacher has a collection of this and that or mismatched, missing pieces of something or the other. Since the school is so old (over 70-years) you can imagine that we have several collections. I have a handful of these, collected at random, in a paper bag labeled “Improv Bag.” The bag itself is so old and well-used that it has become soft and fuzzy at the top.

A collection of random objects (lost and now found) to help the children develop story. An item is selected and then the children work collaboratively to create character, setting, and conflict inspired by that object before beginning the play arc.

A collection of random objects (lost and now found) to help the children develop story. An item is selected and then the children work collaboratively to create character, setting, and conflict inspired by that object before beginning the play arc.

On this day, the person to my right closed her eyes and fished around in the bag — the pressure is on! — the last session was led by the tarantula and the Amazon river journey that included the danger of “blood-filled rocks” would be hard to beat. She frowned when she looked at the broken motorcycle wheel. What could they do with that? How would they work Elsa fairies into this story???

The other children started shouting out ideas for the conflict. This class has learned so much about social dramatic play and they rush right to the problem-solving part. “It’s a magic wheel and when it touches anything it turns it to magic!” and “Yeah, it’s golden magic!” then “It turns our boat on the Amazon to MAGIC!”

See. Here is the thing. We are working on expanding social language and certainly, magic has its place, but we are working on the agree-to-agree with the class and the first rule of improv is that when someone hands you a banana, you have to agree that it is a banana. If the story line is immediately resolved by magic (or similarly with guns), then the story has no time to unfold. To be clear, there is plenty of room for magic and weapons, but the story line will most definitely be derailed if it starts with these as solutions.

Here is where the scaffolding comes in for developing connective threads and story — I pose a question, “If I had a broken motorcycle, like let’s say the wheel fell off, where would I get it fixed?”

“The mechanic garage!” one of the children shouts, and then shouts of the agree-to-agree layer on top of each other, “Yes! Mechanics!”

From there we shaped place, time, and soon there was money changing hands along with several new job openings — who would paint the race car (because the motorcycle became a car)? Who would design the car? Who would record the customer’s information and take her money? Someone had better make coffee! Another person added marshmallows and supplied me with my very own iphone so that I could keep up with the progress they were making on my car. I played a disgruntled and grouchy customer. What a stretch of my acting skills! Hah! I coached them in how they are supposed to be nice to me no matter how much I grumped, hence the coffee with marshmallows for an added touch and free iphone.

We conducted this same exercise with two different groups (we have 45 minute social dramatic play sessions as part of our program). It was interesting how each group approached the same play arc: “Broken Motorcycle Tire.”

“Your car is so broken!” She built her own car to repair for me. It is going to take 68 hours to repair! “Have some coffee,” she tells me. I might need two cups!

“Your car is so broken!”
She built her own car to repair for me. It is going to take 68 hours to repair! “Have some coffee,” she tells me. I might need two cups!

“These are the fireballs I am going to paint on your car!” Yes! I will have the best car a nursery school teacher could wish for. I told her to make sure she gave me racing fuel for the engine.

“These are the fireballs I am going to paint on your car!”
Yes! I will have the best car a nursery school teacher could wish for. I told her to make sure she gave me racing fuel for the engine.

Each group had the same materials available for their use. This group collaborated on a single car and it features decorative elements of scarves and “fuel pipes” which would make my car the fastest one around!

Each group had the same materials available for their use. This group collaborated on a single car and it features decorative elements of scarves and “fuel pipes” which would make my car the fastest one around!

This group spent a lot of time painting the inside and outside of my car. They used the ladder triangle as the lift. It was interesting to see how the cars differed. The one, as I mentioned, was decorated with scarves yet this one featured a lot of interior details, like a driver’s seat (kind of important), a trunk/boot, and a cup holder. Good thing I have a place to keep my coffee!

This group spent a lot of time painting the inside and outside of my car. They used the ladder triangle as the lift. It was interesting to see how the cars differed. The one, as I mentioned, was decorated with scarves yet this one featured a lot of interior details, like a driver’s seat (kind of important), a trunk/boot, and a cup holder. Good thing I have a place to keep my coffee!

Cup holder technology!

Cup holder technology!