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Sociodramatic play (emergent literacy)

​Sociodramatic play is where children act out imaginary situations and stories, become different characters, and pretend they are in different locations and times.


When imaginative/dramatic play is shared with others, this becomes sociodramatic play. It can involve the use of props, costumes, and scenery, but this isn't a requirement. It is possible for sociodramatic play to make use of nothing but children's imagination.

In this section, however, we explore how materials can be provided and scenarios set up, so that children can engage in emergent literacy experiences within sociodramatic play.

Sociodramatic play is the most advanced form of play, and constantly changes (fluid and dynamic) according to the interests and ideas of children.

In this section, we explore sociodramatic play as a teaching practice for emergent literacy.

For an exploration of the use of this practice for developing children's oral language, refer to Sociodramatic play (interacting with others)

The benefits of sociodramatic play

Sociodramatic play allows children to explore and create new worlds. The possibilities of children's sociodramatic play extend to exploring the power and utility of literacy for communicating meaning through multiple modes. Children take on roles/characters, act out various scenarios and stories, and solve problems using a variety of communication modes.

[Children's] communication and self-expression take many forms including sharing stories and symbols from their own culture, re-enacting well-known stories and using creative arts, such as drawing, painting and sculpture, drama, dance, movement and music to communicate with others. They create and explore imaginary worlds through dramatic play and through artworks.
- VEYLDF (2016)

Williams and Rask (2003) argue that play is not only a context for learning, but an engaging means of creating purposeful literacy experiences:

In literacy it allows them to develop understanding of the purposes and power of the written word through discovery, hypothesis raising and experimentation. They are unlikely to achieve this without the interventions of supportive and questioning adults.
- Williams and Rask (2003,p. 529)

Features of sociodramatic play

Sociodramatic play usually involves children:

  • developing roles
  • creating their own storylines
  • making up their own spoken lines (dialogue)
  • interacting with each other
  • directing each other in play.

(Dinham and Chalk, 2018)

Children use play to practice important language and social skills, including:

  • joining in
  • sharing and taking turns
  • ways of interacting through different relationships (parent/child, brother/sister, doctor/patient)
  • negotiating with each other about how the play will go.

(Dinham and Chalk, 2018)

The educator's role in sociodramatic play

How involved educators are will depend on what the learning intention of the experience is, and how children are interacting. Educators can take on many different roles during sociodramatic play.

Adapted from Enz (1995). Educators can be more less or more involved in sociodramatic play, depending on the learning intentions. Also see Jones and Reynolds (2011).

This continuum links to the VEYLDF (2016) Practice Principle: Integrated Teaching and Learning Approaches, which draws distinctions between:

  • child-directed play and learning (similar to Onlooker above)
  • guided play and learning (similar to stage manager and co-player roles)
  • adult-led learning (similar to play leader).

Educators move between these three approaches in an interweaving way, in order to advance children's knowledge.

The educator's role in sociodramatic play is dynamic and shifting according to the needs of children.

As children are engrossed in play, guided by their imaginations, the involvement of educators may become minimal.

The use of drama for interacting with others is explored further in Performing arts (interacting with others).

Creating purposeful reading and writing opportunities

Educators can create purposeful emergent reading and writing opportunities within any play area.

Refer to: Literacy-rich environment.

Dramatic play area[s] provide a good opportunity to include different texts for purposeful reading and writing by children… In this way children are able to reinforce their understanding of the communicative value of written texts and also to experiment with the writing of texts as part of their pretend play.
- Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 387)

By providing access to a range of texts and materials, children can explore ways of using literacy in a functional and playful way.

In this way, educators create opportunities for children to understand the multiple purposes of literacy, and children can play the role of reader and writer, by taking on roles in play (for example the waiter writing down orders) and engaging in reading and writing of texts for a particular purpose (Banerjee, Alsalman, & Alqafari, 2016; Saracho, 2001).

Examples of sociodramatic play area themes and potential literacy materials, include:

  • Doctor's office/ Hospital - patient folder, pretend x-rays, clipboards for taking notes, visual schedule for booking appointments
  • Restaurant/ Café - menus, signs for restaurant/café name and foods/drinks, pretend eftpos machine, cash register, book for noting books, clipboard for taking orders
  • Grocery Store - notepads, pencil/pens and paper for shopping lists, paper for receipts, cardboard for making signs/labels for foods, and specials
  • Hardware store - price tags, labels, pencils/pens, paper for shopping lists, signs, measuring tape, notepads, visual instructions, allen key, brochures, catalogues, and booklets
  • Post office - envelopes, stamps, boxes for shipping presents, mailbox, mailbags, paper and stationery for writing and posting letters
  • Office - documents, play computers or keyboards, play phones, calendars, schedules, sticky notes
  • Aquarium/Zoo/Vet - signs for animals, diagrams of animals, notepads for vet or zookeepers, brochures
  • Camping - map, trail signs, compass, tent instructions, labels on pretend food, sticks for writing/drawing in the earth.

(Adapted from Fellowes and Oakley, 2014; Williams & Rask, 2003)

Siraj-Blatchford (2009) describes a pedagogical sequence for developing children's language and emergent literacy: modelling, scaffolding, extension. Educators can use this sequence to develop emergent literacy during sociodramatic play:

  • modelling the use of written texts as part of the play situations (as a co-player)
  • scaffolding children's emergent reading or writing engagement by asking open-ended questions, providing feedback, and helping children to use materials within the context of play (as stage manager, co-player, or play leader)
  • extending children's emergent literacy by engaging in sustained shared thinking, asking analytical questions, providing additional materials or play ideas to build upon children's current literacy engagement.

Embedding emergent literacy learning foci

General principles

  • When setting up play experiences, think of what emergent literacy concepts can be embedded
  • Demonstrate to children how props, costumes, spaces can be used in sociodramatic play
  • Encourage children to imagine what a particular prop or costume could symbolise (e.g. using a block as a phone)
  • Think about what role you will play in the experience, (onlooker, stage manager, co-player, or play leader).

When using play as a teaching practice for emergent literacy, there are a range of learning foci that educators can embed.

Making meaning and expressing ideas:

  • model and scaffold use of written texts for emergent reading (e.g. reading menus, responding to signs, following visual instructions)
  • model and scaffold use of written texts for emergent writing (e.g. making a shopping list, writing down orders, creating a map, sending a letter; note: writing will consist of a mix of marks, scribbles, drawings, and actual letter forms).

Exploring and creating texts:

  • use the texts from reading and writing experiences as stimuli for sociodramatic play (including picture storybooks, non-fiction texts, functional texts like recipes and instructions)
  • consider ways of creating sociodramatic play areas that require:
    • personal (expressive) texts (e.g. drawing/writing letters, notes, recounts)
    • imaginative (narratives) texts (e.g. storybooks, drawing/writing stories)
    • informative (expository) texts (e.g. lists, recipes, maps, instructions)
    • provide children with prompts, props, costumes and pictures to help stimulate re-enacting of stories from books or storytelling experiences
    • children can create functional and meaningful texts using mainly drawings/images, but may include some elements of print (with educator support)
    • these could include any of the texts relevant to play themes explored above (e.g. Doctor's office, Café, Grocery Store, Aquarium).

Fine motor:

  • consider the fine motor requirements of any writing implement or material you provide children
  • use writing and play experiences to model and scaffold children's use of implements to create more complex and varied marks, scribbles, drawings, and shape/letter forms, developing their fine motor skills
  • support children to use writing implements for all kinds of writing experiences from mark making through to using print in a functional way during play.

Concepts of print:

  • talk about print concepts in the context of play (highlight the features and meanings of environmental print as part of play, e.g. the red stop sign means "stop", the recycling symbol signifies which kind of waste can go in that particular bin)
  • use the terminology to describe different kinds of texts/materials with children, e.g. letter, brochure, notepad, sticky note, menu, receipt, recipe etc.


  • model phonics awareness during functional uses of print in children's writing experiences (e.g. adding labels, signs etc.)
  • model how simple sound-letter (phonics) patterns can be used to spell short words
  • model sounding out and writing a letter (or letter pattern) for each sound in the word.

Refer to the experience plans for more information.

Theory to practice

When we understand literacy from a multimodal perspective, we recognise that meaning is communicated through combinations of two or more semiotic (meaning) modes (Kalantzis et al., 2016). Wohlwend (2015) builds upon these broader understandings of literacy to argue that play is a form of literacy in itself. The authors see sociodramatic play as a way of "creating and coordinating a live-action text among multiple players" (Wohlwend, 2015, p. 2).

This ties in with the view that literacy is not just an assemblage of skills to be learned, but a social practice that children learn within and through (see Barton and Hamilton, 2016).

Children's sociodramatic play experiences present unique opportunities for children to develop language and literacy skills, through the creation and exploration of imaginary worlds and the texts within them (Wohlwend, 2015; Smilansky, 1968).

From a Piagetian viewpoint, creating sociodramatic play opportunities allows children to independently consolidate cognitive skills like Concepts of Print, and explore the interactions between other individuals and the physical environment (Piaget, 1962; Yaden, Rowe and MacGillivray, 2000).

The importance of sociodramatic play for emergent literacy is also emphasised within a Vygotskian perspective, where literacy is viewed as a social, constructive process that begins in early life (Vygotsky, 1967). This view sees literacy as developing through everyday experiences with others, including pretend play (see Roskos and Christie, 2011; Teale & Sulzby, 1986).

In line with Vygotsky's (1967) socio-cultural learning theory, play allows children to be supported by a more capable "player".

For sociodramatic play, this means that older peers and educators can model more advanced play using elements of drama teaching. This will then allow children to learn collaboratively, and eventually be able to engage in more advanced sociodramatic play by themselves.

An important point, regarding how these theories explain the relationships between play and literacy, is made by Pellegrini and Van Ryzin (2007), who argue that classic theorists do not directly explain the play-literacy interface. However, they do examine the ways that play activity influences literacy, including through pretend transformations, narrative thinking, and meta-play talk (i.e. talking about how to play).

Evidence base

Because play can take many forms as a teaching practice, it is difficult to measure its impact on literacy learning specifically. Some reviews of research indicate that play (in general) is associated with the development of language and literacy skills, but it is not always possible to say that play itself has caused these changes in development (Lillard et al., 2013).

In one study (Nicolopoulou, Cortina, Ilgaz, Cates, and de Sá, 2015), the researchers found that children who participated in a storytelling and sociodramatic play program had improved language, emergent literacy, play, and self-regulation abilities.

Also, in a review by Weisberg, Zosh and Hirsh-Pasek (2013) the following conclusions are made about the links between language and play:

  • play allows children to practice using symbols and understanding symbolic relationships (a key part of using language)
  • play encourages children to use more advanced language that is specific to certain scenarios or social roles
  • during play, there is a significant amount of language used by children, their peers, and adults, providing numerous opportunities to hear, practice, and learn language
  • play allows children to be in control and engaged in the interaction, and when adults follow this lead, children are likely to learn more language (compared to an adult-led experience).

Myck-Wayne's (2010) study of dramatic play areas provided evidence that setting up these areas allows children to practise functional uses of language and literacy in context.

Outcome 1: identity

Children feel safe, secure and supported.

  • confidently explore and engage with social and physical environments through relationships and play
  • initiate and join in play
  • explore aspects of identity through role-play.

Children develop knowledgeable and confident self-identities.

  • explore different identities and points of view in dramatic play
  • learn to interact in relation to others with care, empathy and respect
  • engage in and contribute to shared play experiences.

Outcome 2: community

Children develop a sense of belonging to groups and communities and an understanding of the reciprocal rights and responsibilities necessary for active civic participation.

  • cooperate with others and negotiate roles and relationships in play episodes and group experiences
  • build on their own social experiences to explore other ways of being
  • understand different ways of contributing through play and projects
  • are playful and respond positively to others, reaching out for company and friendship.

Children become socially responsible and show respect for the environment.

  • use play to investigate, project and explore new ideas.

Outcome 4: learning

Children develop dispositions for learning such as curiosity, cooperation, confidence, creativity, commitment, enthusiasm, persistence, imagination and reflexivity.

  • use play to investigate, imagine and explore ideas
  • initiate and contribute to play experiences emerging from their own ideas.

Children transfer and adapt what they have learnt from one context to another.

  • use the processes of play, reflection and investigation to problem-solve.

Children resource their own learning through connecting with people, place, technologies and natural and processed materials.

  • explore ideas and theories using imagination, creativity and play.

Outcome 5: communication

Children interact verbally and non-verbally with others for a range of purposes.

  • use language and representations from play, music and art to share and project meaning
  • contribute their ideas and experiences in play and small and large group discussion
  • exchange ideas, feelings and understandings using language and representations in play.

Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts.

  • listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhymes in context
  • view and listen to printed, visual and multimedia texts and respond with relevant gestures, actions, comments and/or questions
  • sing chant rhymes, jingles and songs
  • take on roles of literacy and numeracy users in their play
  • begin to understand key literacy and numeracy concepts and processes, such as the sounds of language, letter–sound relationships, concepts of print and the ways that texts are structured
  • explore texts from a range of different perspectives and begin to analyse the meanings
  • actively use, engage with and share the enjoyment of language and texts in a range of ways
  • recognise and engage with written and oral culturally constructed texts.

Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media.

  • use language and engage in symbolic play to imagine and create roles, scripts and ideas
  • share the stories and symbols of their own cultures and re-enact well-known stories
  • use the creative arts, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, drama, dance, movement, music and story-telling, to express ideas and make meaning
  • experiment with ways of expressing ideas and meaning using a range of media
  • begin to use images and approximations of letters and words to convey meaning.

Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work.

  • use symbols in play to represent and make meaning
  • begin to make connections between, and see patterns in, their feelings, ideas, words and actions, and those of others
  • develop an understanding that symbols are a powerful means of communication and that ideas, thoughts and concepts can be represented through them
  • begin to be aware of the relationships between oral, written and visual representations
  • begin to recognise patterns and relationships and the connections between them.

Children use information and communication technologies to access information, investigate ideas and represent their thinking.

  • identify the uses of technologies in everyday life and use real or imaginary technologies as props in their play
  • use information and communication technologies to access images and information, explore diverse perspectives and make sense of their world
  • use information and communications technologies as tools for designing, drawing, editing, reflecting and composing
  • engage with technology for fun and to make meaning.

Experience plans and videos

Early communicators (birth - 18 months) and early language users (12 - 36 months)

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 -60 months)

Learning foci and teaching practices