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How I incorporate role-playing into my teaching at home

How I incorporate role-playing into my teaching at home

Do you want to make-believe with me? This common phrase in the popular kids’ television show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is proof of one thing: kids love pretending.

I have distinct childhood memories of playing house as a little girl, tossing a fake bouquet back and forth with my best friend as we took turns pretending to be the bride, and going on epic treasure hunts through our backyard. My kids are the same way. They act out the adventures in their favorite shows, create elaborate scenarios for rescuing some stuffed animal or other from the brink of destruction, and can quickly turn a cardboard box into a bear cave or a rocketship.

Pretending is great kids’ play, but it can also be used to your benefit as a parent. One of the best ways to teach kids anything is through play. “Play is the work of the child,” said innovative educator Maria Montessori. If we want to teach our children something and have them actually learn it, we have to meet them at their level. One easy way to do this is to incorporate role-playing into your teaching.

What is role-playing?

Basically, role-playing is playing pretend with a specific purpose in mind. It’s practicing a particular behavior so your children understand what is required of them and are prepared to be successful when they encounter difficult situations in real life.

Rather than pretending to be the princess and the knight, you choose roles that will help your child learn and practice a behavior that you want to work on with them. If your child is nervous about going in for a check-up, you might pretend together be the doctor and the patient, acting out what will happen at the appointment so your child will be more at ease.

Or you might re-enact a situation that went wrong at home (sibling arguments, anyone?) to practice what kind of behavior would have been a better choice. This gives kids a redo on their poor choice, which is empowering, and it reinforces the good behavior.

Why does it work?

Humans are creatures of habit. The old adage of “practice makes perfect” is why coaches tell their players to treat every practice as if it’s the big game. Directors tell their actors to always perform as if there is a full house.

After studying the effect of practice on various types of activities, researchers from Rice University asserted, “Deliberate practice was a strong overall predictor of success in many performance domains, and not surprisingly, people who report practicing a lot generally tend to perform at a higher level than people who practice less.”

Now, these are hardly surprising results, but have you ever considered how practice applies off the field or stage? If practice is important in sports and school, isn’t it equally important in our homes?

When do I use role-playing?

There are two main times I use role-playing:

1. As part of Preventive Teaching to prepare kids for a new situation.

2. In Correcting Behaviors to model and practice the good behaviors I want to see in my home.

Using Role-playing in Preventive Teaching

For example, several months ago I realized that I had never educated my kids about what to in case of a fire. It’s important to me that my kids be prepared for emergencies, so we took some time during our “Mommy School” preschool lessons to learn about fire safety and created a plan for what to do if there was ever a fire in our home. We talked about why you stay low to the ground, how to check to see if a closed door is hot, and where to go once you get out of the house.

Talking about these ideas was helpful, but all of these things were really new ideas for my four-year-old. I could tell a lot of it was going over his head, so we acted it out to practice the skills. We went to his bedroom where he pretended like he was asleep in bed. I had him “wake up” and smell smoke. I talked him through what to do, but he physically did all the actions we had talked about. We practiced several times that first day, until I could tell his attention was waning, and then we revisited it another time to reinforce.

Studies show that in an emergency situation, logic goes out the window and we rely on instinct. Consequently, we have to practice these skills enough that they become instinctual for our kids. My sister, a second-grade teacher, has told me how many of her students will fail at dialing 9-1-1 when they practice at school because they forget to push the call button on the phone. Such a simple thing, but they get so flustered in the moment of reenacting an emergency, that they just don’t think about it.

I used the same tactics to teach my son our phone number. I taught him the numbers using multiple strategies, and then I made a giant pretend keypad that we taped to the wall so he could practice whenever he wanted. We left it there for awhile and he would punch in the numbers (and “call”) from time to time as he was walking by. We eventually took it down, but almost a year later he still knows the phone number. Practice really does make permanent!

Using Role-playing in Correcting Behaviors

Kids make mistakes. They hit, they yell, they slam doors. They are little people (and sometimes big people) who are still learning to manage their emotions and cope with the frustrations of life in acceptable ways. Our role as parents is to teach them productive, helpful ways to deal with their problems, rather than just punishing poor choices.

Role-playing can be really helpful in correcting these negative behaviors and giving kids the tools to make better choices. When my son gets mad at his brother, I could just say, “Don’t yell” or “Don’t hit!” But that just keeps the focus on the negative behavior.

Correcting Behaviors takes teaching to the next level by helping your child identify what an acceptable solution to the problem would be, and encourages the child to practice the positive behavior with you. If my son shoves his brother away from a toy, I try to take him aside and work through the problem. We talk about why he made the choice to push his brother (“I didn’t want him to take my toy”) and I express empathy (“I understand that it is frustrating when he takes things from you before you’re finished”). Then, we discuss what he could have done instead, and practice what he can do next time through role-play.

I’ll tell him, “Okay, let’s pretend I’m your brother and I’m trying to take your toy. What could you do next time that would be a better choice.”

He usually has a good idea, like, “I could use my words to tell him no.”

Then, I’ll prompt him further, “And if that doesn’t work?”

He knows the right answer, “Then I ask a grownup for help or move to a different place where he can’t bother me.”

I then say, “Great! Show me,” and we act out the scenario. He thinks it’s funny when I act ridiculous like his little brother. Sometimes he’ll play the mom role and I’ll play the kid role. That’s a hit with him as well.

Since I started having my son actually role-play desired behaviors with me, I’ve felt like the “time outs” we do when he misbehaves have been more positive and more productive. It’s no longer about punishing him through isolation. It’s about taking a break for a minute so that I can teach him an important skill.

Role-playing helps my kids gain empathy for others, prepares them for new situations, and allows them to reflect on their own choices. Sometimes it feels silly or forced, but it’s certainly effective. Try it yourself…learn more about the skill of Role-playing here.