Active Learning on

Role Plays

Role Play or Simulation?

How does a role-play differ from a simulation?

It’s a delicate difference but I’ve used role-play to describe activities which are built round students taking decisions as if they are in a given historical situation. These decisions can lead to movement round a map but the focus is on the decisions. In simulations students re-enact, for example, an event but don’t face options and make choices.

Almost all of the role-plays are very closely structured, much more so than many people expect on hearing the words “role-play”. Movement is directed by the teacher rather than being left to students. Much greater emphasis is placed on thinking – thinking from the inside of the situation. However there are examples of more open-ended role-plays. Geoff Lyon’s activities on the pre-1832 election and on 1930s unemployment provide good models of these.

Example Activities

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Why use a role play?

They work at all levels, up to and including undergraduate level and can be adapted to accommodate a wide variety of demands and levels of detail. The major benefits are:

- they are an effective introduction to people, names, a sequence of events and places

- they develop students’ understanding of the motives and attitudes of people in the past

- they can bring out clearly why sources might have gaps or be subjective and why interpretations differ

- they help students develop an understanding of the complexity of past situations, a much greater complexity because they are, for a lesson, taking part in the historical event.

- they stimulate effective reading, especially at A level and above

- they help students to care about the people in the past because they identify with parts they and their friends have played.

- they require a lot more concentration than standard lessons – any moment you might be put on the spot to make a crucial decision!

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One final practical point – note-taking, particularly at A level. If you have sufficient students pairing them up, one as role-play participant and one as note-taker on behalf of the pair is a useful way of ensuring everyone has a set of notes to take away. If necessary, provide note-takers with structured guidelines for the notes.

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How do you create a role-play?

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Example Activities

Visiting an Asclepion

Can your students find the cure for their ailments at the Asclepion?

Boudicca’s Rebellion

Walk through the events and ask pupils to take the key decisions

The Events of 1066. Could it have ended differently?

Create a map of England, walk your pupils through key decisions and see how their chronicles match up to the real thing. (Don't forget the hair dryer!)

The Black Death comes to Allton

Put your pupils into roles, find out who survives and explore the consequences of the Black Death

Why did People Rebel in 1381?

Put your students into role as villagers facing the aftermath of the Black Death, French attacks and Poll Taxes

Why were medieval kings deposed?

A role play – will your nobles depose the king?

The Wars of the Roses – a light-hearted outline!

A structured role-play covering 1450-1487, intended as an introductory activity for A level students.

The beginnings of the Wars of the Roses: 1452–1455

A role–play introduction to the people and events for A level and above

Henry VIII, Wolsey and Europe 1509-1529

Turn your room into a map of Europe and chart Henry's road to glory – or failure

Dissolution of the Monasteries

A role play that focusses on people and the importance of monasteries to communities

Kett’s Rebellion – what happened and why?

A role–play that brings people and decision–making off the page and helps students deepen their understanding.

Civil War comes to Deerhurst

A role play for A Level students who take the roles of the leading villagers of Deerhurst, dealing with the pressures put on them by Royalists and Parliamentarians

Did the Train Arrive on Time?

Liven up the railway revolution with a trip from Stockton to Darlington

Who's got the answer to the problem? The story of the Industrial Revolution

An overview activity introducing a wide range of developments from 1750-1900 – a positive view of the Industrial Revolution!

Pre–1832 Election Game

A role play that’s simply not fair – but very good for learning

Shall we join the Chartists?

Test your acting skills and get your students researching Chartism with renewed interest and purpose

Failure of the Schlieffen Plan

Walk your students through the map of Europe and make your decisions - then discover the grim reality

Should we support the Bolsheviks – 1921

A role-play, by Mick Long, to develop students’ understandings of the political situation in Russia in 1921.

Stalin, Trotsky & the struggle for power after Lenin

Sally Burnham demonstrates how these complex events can be readily assimilated. Chocolate biscuits an essential resource!

Role-playing Unemployment in the 1930s

Make the Depression personal and enhance students' understanding

Rhineland Occupation Game

Were the politicians of the 1930s really blunderers?

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This page

Role Play or Simulation?

Why use role play?

Note Taking

How to create a role play


Example Activities


Other Activity Areas

Using Activities

Types of Activities

Hot Seating

Washing Lines

Timelines & Living Graphs

Role Plays


Decision Making

Physical Maps & Family Trees

Archaeology & Mysteries

Creating Communities

Market Place

Miscellaneous Models

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