Williamson, P. A. & Silvern, S. B. (1992). “You can’t be grandma; you’re a boy”: Events within the thematic fantasy play context that contribute to story comprehension. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 7, 75-93.1


This study examines how kindergarten students’ behavior during dramatic reenactments of stories affects their story comprehension. One hundred and twenty students in six kindergarten classrooms participated in the study. The students heard, discussed, and re-enacted stories in small groups. Researchers used videotaped observations and categorization of observed behaviors along with multiple assessments of recall, storytelling, story sequencing, and oral language competence to identify types of behaviors exhibited by the students during story reenactments and their varying effect on story comprehension. The study finds significant connections between children’s behaviors in dramatic play—particularly “metaplay” behaviors in which they direct other participants in a dramatization—and story comprehension, social skills, and problem solving.

Key Findings:

This study shows that acts of directing by young players (or “metaplay”) during story dramatization are connected with higher levels of story comprehension, independent of differences in students’ verbal ability. This result holds for both immediate-recall tasks and for delayed-recall tasks. In comparison, the study finds that play or dramatization itself (in contrast to no-dramatization) contributes relatively little to story comprehension. It thus appears that the meta-behaviors of stepping out of role, thinking about, and questioning or attempting to direct players are associated with higher levels of story understanding. Children who engaged in metaplay also show more social skills and social problem-solving ability than children not engaging in metaplay. Through controlling for verbal ability, the authors observe that metaplay is not simply evidence of verbal achievement.

Significance of the Findings:

The findings make a good case for giving children ample opportunities to design for themselves ways to act out stories they hear. Children who act out a story together without teacher direction take charge of their own learning and find the interpersonal and cognitive challenges engaging. This study also has implications for children’s writing skills. Children who write with engagement and energy are usually talking with their peers and shaping their stories to entertain them (similar behaviors to those exhibited during fantasy play), and children who have opportunities to act out the stories they write (as they do through thematic fantasy play) increase their enthusiasm for writing. Writing demands other qualities that are similar to those required for thematic-fantasy play, for example, constant shifting from high-level decisions to low-level mechanical concerns.


This study enlisted 120 randomly chosen children in six kindergarten classrooms and randomly assigned them to 30 groups of four. Each group heard, discussed, and re-enacted two familiar tales on days one and two, and an unfamiliar tale on day three. Researchers videotaped the children during their dramatizations and categorized their behaviors during re-enactment. Subsequently, researchers tested the children for recall, using storytelling, story sequencing, and oral language competence in successive administrations. Researchers analyzed the data to assess if types of play within story enactment contributed to sustained recall, focusing on instances of children’s stepping out of role to ask questions or to direct other players (“metaplay”). The analysis also observed additional characteristics of behavior during the fantasy play sessions, such as the use of nonverbal skills and social problem-solving. The authors used regression analyses to test for significant contributions of within-dramatization factors to story comprehension skills.

The study explored differentiating aspects of child behavior during dramatization that might contribute relatively more or less to story comprehension. The authors included measures of productive (oral) language ability obtained when children re-told stories. These measures provided indicators of existing verbal ability differences among the subjects and thus comprise an important control variable.

Limitations of the Research:

This study is correlational in design and so while it demonstrates a relationship between metaplay and story comprehension, it cannot prove that metaplay causes increased story comprehension. It is equally plausible that students who understand a story better are more likely to take action to direct their peers in a story dramatization.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What are the causative interrelationships among engagement, metacognition, and oral comprehension?

1 The text of this summary is adapted from the Arts Education Partnership’s 2002 research compendium: Deasy, R. J. (Ed.). (2002). Critical links: Learning in the arts and student academic and social development. Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership.