Beyond The “Meow” And The “Woof! Woof!”: Unexpected Learning From Our “Vet”

If you asked me before, I would have said that there was no way we would have considered opening a vet office in our dramatic play space. Both my teaching partner, Paula, and I would say that “meowing cats are the bane of our existence,” and somehow, this cat play happens so often in this space. Thankfully this changed when our dramatic play area changed into a beauty salon, and we didn’t want to bring back the cats. But then April 18th happened.

Just as we were getting ready to go home, a student in our class approached us. She’s in the After Care Program that happens to run in our classroom. She had a question for us. “What if we changed the beauty salon into a vet?” What?! A vet would certainly lead to meowing children. That said, a child was coming to us with an idea. There’s such value in students owning the learning and owning the classroom space. How could we stop this?! Instead, we replied with, “There would be planning to do. You would have to think about what we need for a vet, survey students to see if they want a vet, and then figure out where the vet would go, as the beauty salon is still popular. Maybe the vet would have to wait. Plus, we cannot have any ‘people pets.’ What could we do instead?” Right away, she suggested bringing in stuffed animals from home to act as the pets. A friend of hers was there, and already began naming stuffed animals that she could bring in. They thought that they could set-up the vet office next to the salon, in the block space, as then “people can go and get their hair done while they’re waiting for their pet.” Now we’d have two dramatic play areas? We weren’t sure how we felt about this, but reminded these two students that there was planning to do first, and left it at that. We thought that we’d wait and see what happened the next day.

These students didn’t forget, and as soon as it was time to play on the 19th, they started planning.

We could not ignore these students’ dedication to creating a vet, and the data showed that there was definitely an interest in having one. Meanwhile, Paula and I noticed that the beauty salon was not being used as frequently as before. We changed up a few things with the help of the students, but even with the addition of some student-created nail polish and some special visitors to the salon, for the majority of the day, the salon was empty. 

Some very special visitors at the salon today. #teachersofinstagram #iteachk #ctinquiry

A post shared by Aviva (@avivaloca) on

Maybe it was time for the salon to turn into a vet. This was a scary prospect for both of us, as we continued to envision meowing children and loud play, but we agreed to give it a try. We started by bringing the idea to our class during a morning meeting time, and inviting students to look at what the two children did already and add more ideas. One student was determined to turn dramatic play into a mall instead, and even looked at how to merge the “mall” and “vet” options, possibly creating a Pet Shop. But in the end, the vet was still more popular, and we went with this option.

Even when we made the final decision as a class, it was challenging to get things going. We thought that students could brainstorm ideas before we purchased materials, asked for donations, and set-up the space. Unfortunately, one of the two students that helped inspire this change was away sick, and without her there, other children got less involved in the planning process. Then our additional DECE was away sick with no supply, so we had larger numbers for a couple of days. We didn’t get into the vet space as much as we wanted, and while some students went there to plan, dramatic play largely remained empty. Paula and I talked, and decided that if we could bring in some materials, students could start setting up, engaging in the play, and planning during the process. So with the help of a small group of children, we got this note off to parents and shared some initial brainstorming with the class.

Having materials come in definitely helped, but we quickly realized that many students liked the idea of a “vet,” but lacked the schema about them. There was just a lot of excitement about the stuffed animals, but that’s where the play seemed to end. This is when we used our morning meeting times to have conversations around vets (and animals that go to them) and watch some YouTube videos to generate more ideas and increase vocabulary related to vets. 

These discussions helped, and a look at some X-Rays created a new opportunity to write and draw in the vet, but we still thought that there could be more to this dramatic play.

Initially we planned to model some conversations and writing opportunities during our morning meeting, but we often ran out of time to do so. It was then on Wednesday, as I returned from First Nutrition Break, that I saw Paula sitting in the vet as a receptionist. I captured one conversation that quickly led to more, and created an incredibly meaningful reason to read and write at the vet. She intentionally-interrupted the play, and changed it in the most wonderful of ways.

It was amazing to see so many students — even some reluctant writers — reading and writing thanks to our vet office. 

Some students have now even moved past the form, and continue to explore different reasons, and ways, to write at the vet. 

I share this rather long story here because this vet experience has given me a lot to think about.

  • Modelled and shared reading and writing do not just have to happen as a full class. Paula showed the value of engaging in these types of activities in small groups. It was through play that she worked on developing these reading and writing skills. When she left this play, and other students took over, they were able to engage in independent practice. 
  • There is so much value in learning how to be authentic when playing with kids. I have been thinking about this point a lot after watching Paula in action, and even when listening back to the video recordings of me as the receptionist compared to the ones of her. She sounds realI think her interactions helped convince children about the importance of this role of the receptionist, and the need to read and write in this type of role. That’s why they continued to do so, even when she left dramatic play. If children see us modelling a “job” to do, they may make us happy and play along while we’re there, but I wonder if they would still engage in this task, even when we walk away. I’m not so convinced that they would, and I continue to work on ways to sound as authentic as Paula does when playing with kids. 
  • We have to listen to kids, even when what we hear makes us uncomfortable. Neither one of us really wanted a vet, but the students came to us with the idea. They worked on planning for this space, even when we didn’t remind them about it. They did what we asked them to do, and got the support of their classmates in making this change. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have some expectations here. We both felt strongly about “no people animals,” and this was a requirement that our students could live with. There is still so much dramatic play, as students pretend to be everything from concerned pet parents to doctors and nurses. Some students have gotten involved in dramatic play for the first time this year thanks to the vet, and that’s something we can’t ignore. If the vet matters to our students, there’s value in having it matter to us. Seeing what’s happening in this spaceI think has changed both of our perspectives. 
  • Passionate play matters. When children care about a topic, they will delve deeper into it. They will explore it more, and maybe even share their learning, in a way that they wouldn’t have before. We have definitely noticed this about the vet. It’s been incredible to see some of our most reluctant readers and writers, eager to do both because the topic is one that matters to them. They’re being inspired in ways that they weren’t before. This is so powerful to see, and totally worth putting our reservations aside. 

As educators in other grades talk about embracing some of the Full-Day Kindergarten model in their programs, I started to wonder about what dramatic play might look like in these cases. I began to wonder about the link to curriculum expectations. But then I see this vet office in action, and I realize that meaningful links to oral language, reading, writing, math, health, social studies, and science are all possible through dramatic play. Investing time, such as Paula did here, can make a huge difference. How do you use dramatic play in your classroom? How do you make the links to various curriculum expectations? I’ve definitely learned in the past couple of weeks that a “vet” can be about a lot more than “meowing cats.”


2 thoughts on “Beyond The “Meow” And The “Woof! Woof!”: Unexpected Learning From Our “Vet”

  1. I really enjoyed your post Aviva. A summer ago I worked with one of our SLP’s to more deeply understand literacy development in the early years. Through our collaborative work we balanced theory and play-based inquiry approaches. I always understood the importance of dramatic play but focused more on the social and emotional benefits until we deconstructed this area for language and literacy development. I remembered looking at the SLP and said, “If all educators realized the significance of the language and literacy development opportunities in dramatic play, we might hang out there all day! Wonderful!
    Thank you for the detailed account that allowed me to connect the theory with yours and Paula’s amazing practice. Additionally, your pedagogical reflections bring the learning to life!!
    Kudos to you both, and to these amazing risk-taking, play and inquiry loving kids!

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Sarah! I think that I always saw the importance of dramatic play for the creative/drama component, but never realized the tremendous literacy potential in this space. It really changed my vision of dramatic play, and made me realize just how many of the Four Frames can be met in this one area. It’s funny that you mentioned your connection with an SLP, as I was actually thinking about the literacy inservice I attended over the summer and some of the SLP’s comments at this inservice. I’ve thought a lot about what she said regarding vocabulary development and I find us really introducing and reinforcing new vocabulary in this space. Thanks for the reminder about this! I’m curious to hear what other educators have noticed about dramatic play.


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