Deconstructed Role Play…

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Anyone who has heard me speak knows that this is one of my great passions when it comes to developing language, imagination and play.

I was first inspired to give it a go after listening to Pat Broadhead talk about a ‘whatever you want it to be area’. I now recommend what I have called ‘deconstructed role play’ wherever I go and everyone says it produces brilliant results.


The Idea

Quite  simple really. Traditional role play is very adult directed and over-themed. We might set up a cafe, Goldilock’s house or the vet in our role play area. When there is an adult leading the play, using the language, acting out scenarios then the children can easily access the experience – the adult facilitates their play. But when there is no adult the children have to rely on their own life experience to provide them with the tools that they need to be able to play in that particular environment. How many of the children that we work with have ever been in the operating theatre of a vet, or even ordering their lunch in a cafe? As adults we have a lot of experience to draw on when it comes to using our imagination. You could say that you have never been to the moon but you could imagine what it might be like to be there. That is because you have amassed lots of information throughout your life that your brain can use for reference. Not many EYFS children have that!


So, you create a space that is full of things that can be anything. It is like that old saying about children getting expensive toys for Christmas and then playing with the box! There is good reason for that. A toy is a toy, but a box has a million possibilities (at least)!

How does it work?

Firstly, I have to warn you it doesn’t look ‘pretty’! It is a pile of boxes, fabric, tubes and crates. The more the children use it the shabbier it will look. But, the level of imagination and language that you will get will be reward enough. The space can change almost by the minute depending on who is playing in it and better than that you can often have multiple role play scenarios all happening at once based on what the children want to play.


Over time you will create theme or enhancement boxes. These will be boxes full of goodies that are linked to a particular child led interest or theme/topic. When there is an adult leading the play they can use them as a teaching tool. When they leave the play the enhancements are available to the children to either copy the theme of the adult or use in their own non related play.

This is an enhancement basket I set up in a setting after one of the children had a new baby brother. We also added books on the subject once we had read them to the children.


Costumes are an enhancement for me. I always provide lots of fabric for den making and dressing up and add costumes through the enhancement baskets. When I have a tabbard with ‘police’ written across the front I am a policeman whereas a length of fabric has many, many uses.

Backing paper…

Cream or black with lots of mark making tools. The children LOVE creating their own drawings that are personal to their individual play scenarios. I take photos of the children drawing, then photos of them in play using their drawings to play to. Then when the backing sheet is completely full of doodles, use it as a display of mark making adding the photos next to the drawings with a bit of annotation from you about the development of talk/mark making/fine motor etc.


Here is one I made today!

Back in Blackpool today to put together the beginnings of a deconstructed role play. It will of course develop as the staff and children get used to it!

This is the space before we started.


First we needed to clear the area and then establish where we wanted to have the main den making space. Empowering children with the ability to be able to dress the environment and change it quickly, as their play changes, is essential. So it needs to be quick and easy.

My secret weapon? Camping Washing Line! It is cheap, flexible and does the job brilliantly. I get mine from Ebay for about £3 a length. It is strong elastic, covered in cotton and then twisted with a hook on either end. There is no need for pegs or knots when den making with this stuff, you just poke the fabric into a twist and it is gripped there until you pull it out! Genius.


Next job – string up your washing line (at child hight as they need to access it most).


We replaced the old kitchen units with open shelves to house our enhancement boxed and stretched the line from the unit to the wall. We strung another line across the back wall (to the right of the picture).

Then we brought in the boxes! I got some really big ones from Wikes and Claire (teacher) had a friend who was having a kitchen fitted – perfect!

A quick master class in using the washing line with pieces of fabric…

and then let them get creative!

Oh, and did I mention the opportunities for mark making? Claire has put her backing paper onto the heaters. It worked really well!



So, early days for this particular setting – but a fantastic start. Claire is doing a little bit of practitioner research and looking at the levels of engagement and use of language before and after this initiative. She has already got some enhancement tubs going. One with phones, one with bags and one with hats she will develop more as the play progresses.


I can’t urge you enough to give this one a go. It makes a big difference!


26 Comments on “Deconstructed Role Play…”

  1. Alistair, thank you for such an inspiring blog with fantastic pictures. After watching your thought-provoking webinar on the new framework for EYFS as well, I am so excited to get back into my classroom and make changes. Your honesty, humour, subject knowledge and enthusiasm is awesome.

  2. This the way i wish nursery was for young children as it is the most creative way for them to learn absolutely love boxes,material and junk

  3. My colleague and i are hoping to create a deconstructed role play area to get children more involved.
    We are going to undertake the ABC does training but can anyone offer any helpful hints or tips?
    Many thanks

  4. Thank you Alistair,
    I am inspired by the deconstruction role-play. I am hoping to introduce this in my establishment.

  5. Omg. Mind blown. So many hesien, beautiful classrooms that were making me feel rubbish. This is my dream.

  6. hi
    I would like to add the deconstructed role play into my classroom but I have a small area what do you suggest I put ?.

    1. Hi Refiat. Depending on the development needs of your children, your deconstructed role play would replace your home corner. If you find that you are really short of space then you can introduce lots of opportunities for deconstructed Small World play that allow the children to develop lots of the same skills but in a much smaller physical way.

  7. Hi Alastair,
    Just been recommended to read your post and found it inspiring.I’ve just started working in a nursery/reception class and setting up the role play area has been very stressful as the head is not happy unless it is perfectly set up & modelled constantly.The children have had fun in our post office but didn’t tidy away enough. Not sure how much value it will have as nursery will not be able to even play in it.any thoughts?!

  8. Hi,
    Would you have a de constructive role play area instead of a home corner at the beginning of the year in a nursery. I am Working in a nursery in September which is attached to a school. I have never worked in a nursery before, but I have been told that a home corner is a must because it I helps with settling in when they stat nursery.

  9. Hi Lydia – Yes I do still recommend this to all of the settings that I work with. Obviously children need a point of reference before they can start transforming cardboard boxes into washing machines, caves and rockets etc. So, for very young or inexperienced children I might have a familiar role play setting and a deconstructed role play. In your deconstructed role play you would always have enhancement boxes for children to use to support their familiar role play as well as support any other themes or interests that you were looking at.
    If you list all of the ‘skills’ that children can/do develop through a role play experience, then you need to provide a good level of ambiguity in your role play environment to allow them to do that, otherwise, for lots of children, they will revert back to low level, familiar domestic/superhero role play.

  10. Hi,
    This post was done a while ago now. Do you still recommend it to your settings?
    I have been doing this for over half a year now and it has been lovely to see how creative the children are with it. However I have just been told that it should be a traditional style role play area and that boxes should be outside. Would love to hear some thoughts in this.

  11. Hi
    We have always had a ‘whatever they want it to be space’ ever since I heard Professor Broadhead in Salford a few years ago and we found that the children took things from other areas around the nursery and brought them to this place, but we never thought of providing enhancements based on interests, so we will give this a go!

  12. Hi There,
    Just been looking through your blog. I saw you yesterday at Newmarket and found you very inspiring!
    Just wanted to let you know that the role play area is something I have wanted to change for ages and this isea is something I def going to try.

  13. Hi Becky
    It doesn’t have to be big. Just as big as yur current role play. You could also replicate it outdoors as long as you are taking away some of the structure of ‘traditional’ role play and making it as open ended as possible.
    Good luck.

  14. Wow this looks amazing. In my early years setting i feel like our role play area would not be big enought to deconstruct it and bring in boxes and materials.. any suggestions?

  15. I am little late to this thread but excited and would love to embrace the change! Just ordered Pat’s book- Jenni could you post the link for this video as I cannot find it!

  16. Hi – thought I’d just mention that I’ve had the DIY Role play set up in my Reception class since October and it is FANTASTIC! So many learning opportunites take place in that area and we have had to extend the area due to the popularity. We did a ‘survey’ in class asking children about their favourite places to play, and nearly all of them said the boxes! Anyone who is considering doing a DIY Role Play – go for it! It is well worth it!

  17. Jenni – She is inspiring. I have been lucky enough to present alongside her a couple of times at conferences and I always learn so much and go away inspired!
    Lynne – Absolutely. I have done it with Children’s Centres and Day Nurseries with 2 year olds and achieved great success. If you do have a dabble let us know how you go!

  18. Agree entirely – trotted off to search for info on Pat B – wow!
    Ended up watching her inaugural lecture at Leeds Met on their site – fab and well worth 30 mins of anyone’s time! Looking forward to her latest stuff now in preparation! Would also LOVE to get Quciksilver theatre group to do inset – brill ideas!

  19. So is this something you would recommend for 3 yrs + I have to admit to finding it rather interesting!!!

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