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A healthy way with role play

The value of imaginative or pretend play is well recognised by those working with young children and most infant classes have a role-play area. However, once the initial excitement of setting up the areas has passed, children can lose interest and play can become rather repetitive or mundane. Careful planning and management of imaginative role-play resources can help to give the play purpose and can structure learning. Here are ideas for setting up a "Health centre".

The key learning outcomes for this area might focus on health and on looking after your body. The children should develop concepts such as:

* To have a healthy body, you need to look after it.

* Hygiene and keeping clean are important.

* There are many parts of the body - outside and inside.

* We use our senses to find out about the world.

* It is important to know how to look after your teeth.

* General skills such as describing, explaining, giving instructions and suggesting reason and solutions may be developed. Positive attitudes such as co-operating, helping and showing sympathy forempathy with others should be encouraged.

Before a health centre area is set up the children might visit a real one. Roles and jobs can be described and discussed. A medical bag and the contents may be examined. Instruments and materials can be named and discussion can take place about how these should be used. Back in school, little stories about life in the health centre can be told. In these, characters can be introduced, daily routines established and procedures described.

It is important for the children to take part in the setting up of a new area rather than being presented with a finished "set". In this way they can have "ownership" of the area. New objects can be introduced at intervals, sometimes by an adult in role in the area, sometimes in discussion before play starts. Useful resources might include medical instruments, charts, signs and posters, dressing up clothes such as white coats (cut down shirts), and surgical gloves, leaflets about health and nutrition, pads and pens for writing notes and prescriptions and furniture for the examining and reception areas.

Acting out roles helps the children to engage with, and learn more about, "the human condition". An example of this might begin with the children being told a story of a patient who is too frightened to visit the doctor (or dentist). It might be because someone has been telling them stories about the things that happen - cutting off legs, pulling all their teeth out. The story should be told in a light-hearted way and the whole idea of being frightened should seem silly and not something that sensible people (like the children) would consider. In discussion, the children would be asked to suggest how that person could be reassured. The children might wish to play out the situation in the role-play area.

Alternatively, an adult can take on the role of someone who is afraid. She would sit in the reception area and discuss her fears with the other patients, seeking reassurance. The children might offer advice. This shouldn't just be accepted. Instead the adult should ask questions and really get them to think and give clear explanations of why there is no need to be afraid.

Other scenarios and roles might include:

* Someone is brushing their teeth the wrong wayat the wrong times. They need a demonstration.

* Someone needs advice about how to look after a baby, as they are babysitting for the first time.

* A new medical student is putting together a skeleton all the wrong way - this may be done with a home-made or commercially produced skeleton card.

* Someone needs help after an accident - putting on a bandage, treating a burn.

* Someone needs advice about how to store medicines safely.

* An important person is coming to visit the health centre. The children prepare a tour.

The imaginative role-play area is the children's domain. The drama works better when the children take high status roles and the adult role is low status. If the adult's character seeks advice or asks for help or directions or does something silly, the children become "experts" and can offer advice, support instructions.

Finally, a useful check on how the play has been going can be done during a "reporting time" when children can describe what they have been doing. Careful questions and discussion can reinforce key learning points and can give the children a sense that their role-play ideas are important and are valued.

Marie Jeanne McNaughton

Marie Jeanne McNaughton is secretary of National Drama and a lecturer in primary education at the University of Strathclyde

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