How the Inside Supports the Outside

"Everything worked for me!" That seemed to be the consensus at the close of our last dramatic play session, but as with most good play arcs the story is never that simple.

With every age group we work with, beginning with the 2s and on up through the 5s, we meet at the end of each dramatic play session and check in with each other just as we do at the beginning of a session. The who are you prompt at the beginning changes to the who were you when the session has ended and where will you be changes to where were you. We add other reflections at the end of the session. We most often use the prompt, what worked for you and what didn't as a way to problem solve play conflicts and to preserve play arcs for future use.

The structure is password-protected and requires a lot of negotiation for definition of purpose.


I picked up these techniques during the semester and a half I spent as a theater major in college. I quickly discovered that I did not have the fortitude or talent to follow through with that, but the lessons learned have served me well since. I believe that improvisation in acting helps us, as adults, revisit a time when play was our primary language. By employing these techniques, we also help the children create an internal resource of problem-solving skills and ways to connect and interact with other children. It also means that we arrive very quickly to the idea that something can be anything, you just have to believe it into existence. Yes, of course all children get there, isn't it on every developmental milestone checklist? And once this buy-in is achieved, the language of play really blossoms. A recent example of this is when one of the youngest class members announced that a silver ribbon he had wrapped and rewrapped his body with was a hard hat. This departure from what is to what could be is a moment to savor and celebrate.

The "Everything worked for me!" happens when the players are at their most conversant or when it is a play arc that is being revisited over time, but it is not necessarily true. I reminded them that there was a disagreement with what to do with the ladder/chair construction. There were three children and each had a different vision of the construction and its purpose. Two of them were able to reconcile their vision pretty quickly since they agreed on purpose (two chairs plus one ladder equals a bunk bed) and only disagreed on execution. The third was not having any of it because she wanted to have a house. She wanted the ladder to be placed on the backs of the chairs which obviously equals roof and the bunk bed contingent wanted the ladder positioned across the chair seats. She stomped her feet, crossed her arms and stood facing the wall, her shoulders shaking as her angry tears fell.

I had to remind them that it was not working for her, but that she was able to own that disappointment, get past it, and found a way to join the play. This was a big moment for her because it was the first time she was able to do this, it was a really big step. At first, when I shared all that, she went right back to that hurt place, her arms crossed and her chin jutted out. Her friend chirped, "I learned how to own my disappointment from Miss Nancy." (note: Nancy Pendery is a play therapist we work with a lot.) It just brightened the moment and lifted it away. The chin stopped jutting and she gave a little laugh.

This is just a small example of how we use dramatic play sessions to build this essential library of play skills that will be referred to over a lifetime. Children who are on the spectrum or are still developing their social language skills are especially receptive to the benefits of this approach as well as older children who have not been enrolled at our school during their early childhood years. Group meetings to discuss play arcs and to problem solve hiccups in the changing dynamics of the social group benefits every single person, young and old.

The co-opers and children begin construction on a new den at the top of the berm. The first den was not enough. We had to build a second smaller one connected to it.

This is all in the way of discussion about what then happens outside. Our playground features a fantastic collection of materials, some like our cast iron metal triangles are almost as old as the school. You can find these triangles in photos from the early 50s. And there are more recent collections like the boat, bike wheels, boards, bottle babies, duck decoys, rabbits, and tires. There is a culvert pipe and a vast assortment of logs and branches collected from the many downed trees in the area (the weather has been hard on the trees). All of these collections and the loose parts, the bricks, stones, sand, mud, snow, and gravel, are moved and dragged around by the children in between the spaces between our fixed structures. The fixed structures are specifically known as "destinations" and all of these work together to provide the sum and substance of the children's play arcs.

While our outdoor space and the way we use it is unique in our neck of the woods, what really brings it to its full potential is the dramatic play that is crafted inside the school using this formal process of reflection and problem-solving. This foundation means that we can make room for risk, for adventure, and for full and free exploration because we have planted the seed of successful social interactions, from one child to the next. They learn who to turn to for certain themes of play or who will help them build their game, they make allowances for mistakes and miscues, and they know that they have the ability to express their own ideas, both physically and mentally.

Their imagination soars all while accounting for the other children whose bodies and ideas share the space. They know each other and know what to expect from each other. This means that materials that are usually off limits at other play settings can be part of these children's every day context.

So sure, "Everything worked for me!" is pretty much working for us all.

A pot is left cooking on the stove over the weekend.

The boat, a stonework pallet den and bucket stompers.

The culvert pipe with the new den, the campsite, and an overturned wagon.