Setting Up the Dramatic Play Area

The dramatic play center is a popular area in so many pre-k and kindergarten classrooms. This imaginary play helps strengthen students’ social-emotional and academic skills. But if you are new to having a dramatic play area, you might be wondering: How do you set up a dramatic play area – especially if you are on a budget? Keep reading for suggestions about materials and organization for the center.

Text says: Getting Started with Dramatic Play Centers. Two photos show a pretend sandwich on a plate on top of a checkered tablecloth; and a young girl adjusting the dials on a pretend stove.

Dramatic Play Materials

If you have not had a dramatic play center in your classroom, you might start with a housekeeping area. The supplies you need for a pretend home or housekeeping center are easy to find and are versatile enough to expand the theme later in the year.

Here are a few things you might want to include:

Kitchen Set

There are some lovely and durable kitchen sets sold by school supply companies, but they are also quite pricey. If your budget is limited look for a secondhand kitchen set from Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or local garage sales. Your students will have just as much fun with a plastic Fisher Price kitchen as they would with an expensive wooden set.

Photo of a young girl adjusting the dials on a pretend wooden stove.

Plastic Food, Dishes, and Pots & Pans

You can find all of this anywhere that sells toys for kids. As an added bonus, if you purchase a secondhand kitchen set, the seller may also be willing to sell all the kitchen supplies as part of a set.

Do you have a really limited budget? Then don’t worry about plastic food. Get creative. For food, use empty food containers from home (or ask families to donate them.) Tape cardboard boxes shut (like pasta boxes or cereal boxes.) Use packing tape for durability. Wash out plastic containers and add them to the kitchen set. You can get plastic dishes at stores like Target and Walmart for less than $1 per plate/cup (especially at back to college time.) Two plates and cups are all you really need. Or visit a thrift store to see what you can find. You truly don’t need anything fancy – after all, the whole purpose of dramatic play is to encourage students to use their imaginations!

Photo of a pretend sandwich on a blue plate. The plate is on a red checkered table cloth in a dramatic play center kitchen.

Dress Up Clothes

You can certainly buy dress up clothes made specifically for kids. But you could also repurpose things from garage sales and thrift shops for much less. Or ask parents to donate old clothes. Some fun items include:

  • dresses
  • men’s sport coats
  • short-sleeve button down shirts
  • aprons
  • vests
  • skirts (especially tutu skirts)

NOTE: before adding hats to your dramatic play center, think carefully about head lice…

Baby Dolls and Supplies

You might add a few baby dolls to the center. If you do have dolls, add a few different outfits for the babies, because changing the baby’s clothes is lots of fun! (It also provides great fine motor work!) You can easily find a few baby sleep gowns, dresses, sleepers and baby blankets at garage sales and thrift shops. You may want to add a baby crib or stroller – or your young “parents’ can simply carry the baby and be creative about where it can sleep!

Storage Supplies

Gather plastic boxes (or baskets) of various sizes to hold the clothes, dolls, and pretend food. You don’t need anything fancy and can likely repurpose something you already have.

Photo of a young girls holding a pretend sandwich. In the background is a wicker basket holding pretend food.

Other Furniture

Look around your classroom. What furniture do you have that could be helpful in the dramatic play area? You might have a small shelf that can be used for storing materials. Or you may have a heavy duty shelf that can be used to create a “wall” for the house with the shelves facing in or out, depending on your needs. Your puppet stage could create a wall with a “window.” You may have a little table and chair set that could be used in a kitchen.

Setting Up the Dramatic Play Center

Consider Your Space

Look at the space you will use for your dramatic play area. Envision your children playing in this space. Do you want all of the play contained in one little square space? Do you want it open for students to come and go as they roam the room while they play? How many “rooms” will your house have (maybe a kitchen and a dining room)? Your answers to these questions will depend on the space you have, the furniture you have found, and the number of students who will be using this space.

When I have a a puppet stage with shelves (or a low book shelf), I like to add that to my dramatic play center. Sometimes I push it against the wall to provide more storage space on the shelves. Other times I use it to create a “wall” with the kitchen on one side and a small table on the other.

Plan Your Storage

Next, think about storage. While it’s fun to look at all the “Pinterest worthy” storage ideas, in reality, you want your students to be able to manage the storage independently. The best way to make that happen is to make it easy for them. It’s easy to toss the clothes in a giant box or basket – or to hang them on hooks on the wall. Baby dolls and their clothes/blankets can be dropped in another large plastic box. The food and dishes can easily be tossed in the kitchen “cupboards” or in plastic boxes on the shelves. Think about the students you work with and the type of storage they will be able to use without your help. That is key to making the dramatic play center manageable for you.

Make It Easy to Organize

Finally, consider using shelf labels with pictures to help students put supplies away neatly. You can go all out and label spaces for each individual utensil, if you think your students will be able to handle that. Or you can put a label with plates, bowls and spoons on a shelf in the “cupboard,” prompting students to use that shelf. You might also want to label your large boxes for baby dolls and dress up clothes. Some child is bound to dump everything out, and labels on the boxes will help get things sorted out faster.

Photo of kitchen supplies (measuring cups and spoons, oven mitts) on a shelf in a dramatic play center. The shelf contains labels to help supplies get put away neatly.

Keep It Manageable

As you think about your dramatic play area, think about how many students will be able to work in that space productively. In an average-sized housekeeping space, there will probably be room for 3-5 students. If the space gets too crowded, there may be more disagreements because space and supplies may be limited. It’s much easier to prevent problems with careful planning!

If your dramatic play center has specific roles (characters), you may want to include headbands or name badges for the roles. Sometimes a specific dramatic play theme lends itself well to a prop for each role. For instance, in a bakery you could use aprons to limit the bakers. These role props (headbands, badges, etc.) can help limit the number of students in the play area.

Photo of 3 name badges for students playing in a dramatic play center. These badges have roles for campers and ranger in a camping themed center.

Plan for Clean Up

It is inevitable – your dramatic play center will get messy! It’s the side-effect of working with children. However, you can minimize the clean-up process with some intentional planning.

First, think about how the storage space is set up in the play area. (Reread the section about Setting Up the Dramatic Play Center for specific suggestions.)

Be Intentional

Next, limit the supplies you have in the center at first. You might start with a few food items and a few dishes. As students learn how to be responsible in the dramatic play space, you can gradually add more. For instance, after a week you might add baby dolls – then dress up clothes. Starting with fewer pieces makes clean up more manageable for little learners.

Then, model, model, model. Yes, you will need to do this repeatedly. On the first day (with just a few materials in the center), model how to clean up before the students begin to play. When it’s clean up time, have them think about what you modeled. After a few days, as you add a few more materials, model how to put those pieces away. When students seem to understand the clean up process, allow 1-2 students to quickly model how to clean up (instead of the teacher modeling all the time.) Once students are consistently cleaning up the dramatic play area, you can stop modeling (until you introduce new materials again.)

Finally, allow enough time to clean up. Depending on your students (and the materials), the dramatic play area may take longer to clean up than many other play areas. You might need to give the kids in this area a 2-minute head start on clean-up. Rushing the clean-up time simply encourages the students to cut corners on clean-up, leaving you with a mess to clean up later.

Time to Get Started!

Now you are ready to organize your dramatic play area. If you need suggestions for finding time to squeeze dramatic play into your schedule, check out this post. It has all kids of suggestions for arranging your schedule to make room for play time (especially in kindergarten.)

Once you have considered all these things, you are ready to start your dramatic play center in your classroom. Your students will LOVE this space and you will love watching how they interact as they play!

If you are ready to try other themes in the dramatic play area (like a farmer’s market, a post office, or a hospital), check out my store for some inspiration. You can connect your dramatic play center to themes and holidays in your classroom. Happy playing!

Pin it to refer to as you get started!

Pin title says: Getting Started with Dramatic Play. Photos show scenes from a dramatic play center kitchen: a pretend sandwich on a plate and a girl playing with a wooden stove.
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