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The Prop Box:
Setting the Stage for Meaningful Play


Dramatic play is an essential mode of learning for young children, and "prop boxes," play materials grouped by theme, make this activity even more effective. Find out how you can use these educational tools to guide your students toward meaningful role-playing and creative exploration. Included: Ideas for prop box themes materials.

"Play is the most important medium for development and learning for young children, aged birth to eight years," explains Ann Barbour, a professor of early childhood education at California State University, Los Angeles. "But for many reasons, children have fewer and fewer opportunities to play. So, it's important that teachers consciously support children's play by providing adequate time, space, and interesting materials, like those that can be collected and stored in a prop box."

"Prop boxes" are groups of dramatic play materials that are organized around specific themes. Those themes range from simple subjects like the beach or the farm to the more complex bank, dentist, or science lab. The boxes often are placed in a dramatic play center to spark students' imagination and promote role-playing and exploration.

"Prop boxes enable children to act out what they know, cement their concepts, practice skills in a meaningful context, and learn with and from other children who also are engaged with the materials," explained Barbour, the co-author of Prop Box Play: 50 Themes to Inspire Dramatic Play. "If the materials in the box encourage children to adopt different roles (i.e., chef, server, customer, cashier), children not only have opportunities to try on different roles themselves but also to practice taking someone else's perspective and responding appropriately."


Because dramatic play is the prevailing form of play among three- to six-year-olds, prop boxes are especially appropriate for that age group. Depending on the theme, Barbour suggests that they also can be used to support units of study in the elementary grades. Most important is selecting materials that are relevant and suitable for the developmental levels of the students who use them. While a wash day or bedtime prop box would be ideal for younger children, the travel agency or pioneer box would be a better fit for older students.

"Preparing the environment is a powerful support for play as well as a powerful influence on children's behavior," Barbour told Education World. "It's important to set aside enough time for children to get into their play. Meaningful socio-dramatic play requires at least a 30-minute block of time, because it takes time for children to choose and negotiate roles, select props, and select and enact dramatic play scenarios."

According to Barbour, the key to great prop box play is choosing themes that students have had firsthand experience with. If they have been to a bakery, they will possess enough understanding of bakeries, for their age level, to play out what they know and to expand their understanding. Wonderful materials only generate wonderful learning experiences when the theme is relevant for the children.


As an example of a theme that works well in many settings, Barbour offers the television production studio. Children of all ages can pretend to be on television. Younger children might act out what they have seen, while older ones can be reporters, interviewers, advertisers, and more. Barbour believes that theme even makes television more interactive for children, and strengthens verbal skills. Items featured in a television production studio prop box are a clamp light, a dry-erase board, make-up brushes, post-it notes and name cards, products to advertise, a homemade movie camera, and a television carved from a cardboard box.

Barbour has the following advice for teachers who are new to using prop boxes in the classroom:

  • Choose a theme you know your students will find interesting, and begin collecting materials associated with that theme. Your attic, basement or closest -- or your friends' and relatives' attics, basements and closets -- are great places to find props. Thrift stores and garage sales are equally wonderful. Put the materials in a labeled box and add items to it as you stumble across them.
  • Include clothing because clothes help children "step into a role." Including props that both boys and girls will find appealing also is important. Some themes, like the flower shop or gas station/garage, might be more attractive to one gender or the other. In that case, you'll need to make a conscious effort to include materials that will appeal to the opposite gender as well.
  • Choose real items that can be used safely, rather than "toys." For example, children can do and learn so much more with a real, but broken, telephone than with a toy telephone.
  • Include literacy materials in every prop box, so children can pretend to read and write, even if they're not yet able to really do so, and can associate literacy/numeracy activities with meaningful contexts. A restaurant prop box can have menus, pads and pens for servers to take orders, a money box or cash register, and so on. There are literacy materials associated with every theme.
  • Set up a "store." Store prop boxes work well because of the different roles associated with stores, the fact that children generally have had experiences shopping, and because it's easy to include literacy materials. Specific store themes include grocery store, ice cream stand, shoe store, and post office.
  • Ask the children what they think should be included. You don't have to do everything yourself! You can ask children what they'll need to set up a shoe store. If they've visited a shoe store, they'll know lots of items to include.
  • Let families know what you're doing. They can be wonderful sources for materials. Businesses, too, often are generous in donating materials.


Brigitte Green-Churchwell of Sandusky, Ohio, appreciates the value of real, hands-on experiences that add relevancy to prop box play. In her preservice teaching, she introduced prop boxes to early childhood and elementary classes. Her favorite box, a flower shop, allowed preschool students to mimic a real flower shop they had explored during a field trip. The operators of the shop had permitted the students to do arrangements and get a firsthand look at what it was really like to work in that type of business. The students translated that experience into their dramatic play.

What Makes a Good Prop Box?

"Relevancy," says Ann Barbour. A great prop box
* contains real materials rather than toys, whenever possible.
* is inclusive of both genders and culturally sensitive.
* has enough materials to support three or more children in sustained play.
* offers open-ended literacy materials. (materials, such as play dough, that can be used for multiple purposes.)

Barbour added, "Just pans and plates are better than plastic food, because children can pretend to cook their own food -- whatever their own family eats -- rather than be limited by plastic fried eggs."

Green-Churchwell, who is pursuing a masters in education, included ample "real" materials in her flower shop box: a mixed assortment of silk flowers, faux grass, brown paper bags torn up as "dirt," gardening gloves, flower pots, tissue paper, plastic vases, seed packets, watering can, old hose, gardening tools, hat, cash register, telephone, ordering pad, pencil, price list, money, and a play car/truck as the delivery vehicle.

The preschoolers enjoyed the box so much they wanted to work with it every day. One of Green-Churchwell's favorite moments occurred when one student approached her with a true dilemma -- the shop had no name! The group then agreed that "The Flower Shop" was an appropriate name and set out to create a sign with paper, crayons, and markers. Problem solved!

"Another memorable moment at a different preschool was when a student declared himself the boss," reported Green-Churchwell. "He was working diligently with the other students until he recognized that one student had been on the telephone way too long, 'talking' to his mom. The self-proclaimed leader came to me about the problem, and I asked him what he thought a boss might do to solve the problem. He went right over and told the other student, 'You are tying up the phone line, and we can't get orders. If you want to talk to your mom, go home, but we've got work to do. Please get off that phone now.'" The boss's approach was effective -- the boy got off the phone. Another problem solved!

"In kindergarten, we used various kinds of prop boxes to take a hands-on look at different careers," Green-Churchwell recalled. "Some of the prop boxes included The Barber Shop and Beauty Salon, The Community, and The Restaurant. Our community box illustrated different people who work in a neighborhood, such as police, postal workers, garbage collectors, bakers, bankers, and more. The restaurant box explored various types of service in different eating establishments, fast food vs. sit down, for example."

In second grade, Green-Churchwell used a simulation prop box to help students experience the voyage and conditions of the Pilgrims coming to America and struggling to build a new home. That box included garments, a journal, tools, and supplies the Pilgrims might have used. The simulation prop box provided students with an emotional and "real" connection with the Pilgrims and the trials they endured.

"I prefer the hands-on methods of learning," said Green-Churchwell. "Prop boxes have served as a dynamic key to hands-on discovery learning for both me and my students, and my students love them because they are a learning form of play."


  • The Prop Box Find out how prop boxes are used to help middle schoolers hone their social skills.
  • Prop Box Ideas From "astronaut" to "western," this list of themes and materials offered by Child Play Family Daycare is a great starting place for early childhood teachers who want to create their own prop boxes.
  • Dramatic Area Activities Discover more ideas for prop box themes and materials to support them.