Why you should use role-playing in the classroom

Memorable classroom experiences are valuable for several reasons. If something from your school days sticks with you for years to come, it’s likely reflective of an engaging, unique learning experience. As teachers, we want students to not only gain the knowledge they need but also to have fun and be comfortable in the process.

Speaking from personal experience, I was not a fan of presentations as a student. Presentations equaled unnerving anticipation, sweaty palms, shaky hands, and a red face. At one point, I went so far as to willingly take a lower grade in a class rather than do the required presentation. We don’t want this happening with students, and I carried those memories with me into my own teaching. I did not want any of my awesome students feeling absolute terror at the prospect of a presentation.

Auditorium with spotlights and audience
Photo credit: Monica Silvestre

But what can you do? Public speaking is important. Presentation skills are also important. Instilling confidence in students is really important. So is it possible to get kids to hone those skills, reach the needed comfort level, and maybe even strengthen conceptual learning … without shaky hands and blushing that can be seen from outer space?

Luckily, the answer is yes. Whew! There are definitely ways to make this sort of practice much less intimidating, and one of those ways is through role-playing.

One of my all-time favorite teachers converted some of our English language arts time to a drama unit. He had an actor friend, and together, they would facilitate drama exercises in the class. Those times produced some of my best school memories. While pretending to be someone else and having a specific role to play, I found a major sense of confidence. I was not afraid to speak in front of the class in those times. Quite the opposite, actually — I looked forward to it! I was even involved in drama as an extra-curricular in later school years.

That might seem like a big leap — to go from a public-speaking phobia to embracing the stage, but it makes sense if you think about it. Role-playing allows you to wear a mask. There is less pressure because you aren’t just “you” — you have a specific persona and goal to focus on. This can eventually make public speaking a breeze and make it easier to give presentations.

mime on stage
Photo credit: Fatih Kılıç

A form of role-playing that I experienced as a student, and carried with me and even used as a teacher, is that of assuming a character’s role when reading a novel as a group. I loved this as a kid — again, because it’s basically a no-pressure situation where you can still be involved in what’s happening in the class. I had a fabulously eccentric teacher in high school who would assign the dialogue (“speaking parts”) of whatever novel the class was reading. It would get everyone involved and interested in the story. I tried this out with my own middle-school students, and the results were wonderful!

On the board, I would list the characters who had dialogue in the chapter that we were about to read. I would serve as narrator and as students volunteered for the speaking parts I’d write their names next to the character they would be playing.

All of the students, even the quietest ones, would volunteer for the speaking parts. They could do it from their desks, no one was looking at them, and it was a great way to accomplish several classroom goals at once: improving speaking skills, increasing student engagement, and raising the comfort level for all students. In fact, it was the shyest student in my class who busted out the truly impressive accents in his speaking roles. It was amazing to see him, of all students, flourish — that’s the beauty of role-playing in the classroom.

3 things role-playing activities can do for your classroom

Photo credit: Nikita Kachanovsky 

1. Develop new skills and concepts

Beyond actual speaking skills, role-playing can develop conflict resolution skills, heighten reading comprehension, and strengthen communication abilities. Role-playing also works in science and math as well, so don’t feel limited to only using it in English language arts.

For example, in science, students may role-play to demonstrate a scientific process, such as macromolecules in the food digestion cycle, an environmental process such as the steps in a weather event, the life-cycle of a plant or animal, or electrons in an electric circuit.

In math, role-playing can demonstrate problem-solving, allowing for students to approach concepts in unique ways. Students can act out a problem, breaking away from the pen-and-paper approach. One use would be for younger elementary-level students beginning to learn problem-solving and arithmetic: You could have three students acting as flowers in a garden and another student comes along and ‘picks’ one of the flowers to put in their basket — how many flowers remain in the garden? Visual learners, in particular, would benefit greatly from this.

Role-playing provides an enriching shift in perspective regardless of the class subject. Students can approach concepts from the character’s point of view in a novel, or that of a food molecule making its way through the digestive tract. These activities create a memorable learning experience that students won’t forget anytime soon.

kids playing surgery
Photo credit: Janko Ferlic

2. Appeal to different learning styles and incorporate active learning

Role-playing taps into various learning styles, such as auditory, linguistic and kinesthetic. It also allows students to demonstrate their knowledge in a way that’s different from what they’re used to, such as a test or even a typical presentation.

Role-playing is also an active learning activity, which makes it a great tool for reinforcing key learning skills that will work for a range of learners in your class. Active learning is naturally going to be engaging for most students, so that’s a clear added benefit.

creative drawing in a notebook
Photo credit: rawpixel.com

3. Inject fun and creativity

Creativity and role-playing go hand in hand. Not only are students actively engaged during role-play activities — and learning skills beyond the subject matter explored during the activity — but they are also likely to have a great time and put their creative talents to good use.

Role-playing provides more room for interpretation. Whether it’s choosing a particular way to act out a character’s role or acting out exactly how an electron would “behave” in their minds, students get to flex their creativity and out-of-the-box thinking by putting an individual flair on what they’re doing.

As students become increasingly comfortable with the process, their own unique takes on subjects, concepts, and literature will develop even more elaborately.

gold bars
Photo credit: Michael Steinberg

Role-playing is a golden opportunity!

These are just a few solid reasons to embrace role-playing in your classroom, and your students will be glad that you did. Take it from a former “I would rather have a root canal than do a presentation” student — finding non-threatening ways to help kids discover their voice will benefit them for the rest of their lives. And with the extra perks of appealing to different learning styles and solidifying concepts in a memorable way, role-playing is one of those rare, dependable strategies that should always remain in your bag of teaching tricks.

Photo credit: Jessica Rockowitz / unsplash.com

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