Why is Theatre Not Getting its Standing Ovation? : (Part Two) The Little People

Monica Moore

  • OnStage New Zealand Columnist

Children learn through modelling and play.  Their free minds create and imagine all sorts of scenarios from building a fort in the lounge to acting out scenarios of life and death, of heroes and villains and great adventures in the backyard. Tea towels becoming turbans or bedding or tents or a full costumes, dependent on knot-tying skills.

It’s in our DNA to learn through creation and replication. 

Devised theatre is an extension of children at play. We’ve all heard the conversations; ‘Now say you’re the cop and I run out over there and you have to chase me.” 

Or, “I’ll get the ladder from behind Dad’s car and we’ll tie it to the trolley and you climb up it while I drive.” 

And on  it goes. Negotiation, collaboration, development of scenarios in a free and confident way. 

Oh the learning! Oh the theatre!

It makes good sense then to tap into and use that natural creativity to devise as part of the formal educational learning process. Instead of controlling, directing, assessing and grading the learning, young children in the school environment should be exposed to what they know. They know how to devise, how to develop ideas, how to explore new concepts and negotiate what will happen next based on the opinions, knowledge and skills of the other participants in the group. This will motivate them to learn to read, to record, to draw, to create when they have the need. All we need to do is to provide the resources and the guidance when they ask.

Having had the privilege of teaching 5-18 year olds across a 32 year career and I am convinced that unless there are serious problems with development we should not be assessing anything for the first few years of a child’s attendance at preschool and primary/elementary school. What’s the point? I’ve never heard of a university graduate being asked whether he could seriate, catch a ball, recognise errors in his writing when he was 7.  

It. Is. Simply. Pointless.

We need to find another way of tracking whether a teacher is effective or not as that is about the only value of assessing at this age; to see whether students are progressing. I taught a boy who spent the first 3 years of his school life sitting on the mat with his mouth half open completely zoned out. He went on to become a passionate medical professional.  I taught a girl who at 5 could run the class and could read at a reading age of a proficient 12 year old. By the time she was 15 she’d dropped out labelled a failure. The moral of the story: Let children learn the natural way. Replicate and build on what they naturally do. Devise, interact, improvise and reflect.

Theatre education and drama skills are an excellent way of facilitating, stimulating, motivating and developing the inquiring mind and THAT is what we want our kids to do. To be free and confident within an authentic learning process that develops their inquiring minds.

As a new teacher teaching 6-7 year olds I was inspired by the work of Dorothy Hethcote. 

Using her approach, my students learned to engage in ‘real life discovery’ within an imaginary situation.  It was quality authentic learning within a theatrical context. 

This worked right across the curriculum. If we were learning about a country, for example Japan we’d gather on the mat and talk about our flight to Japan. How far we’d be travelling, what it would be like when we got there, where we’d land etc. After we got there and learned more about the place we became Japanese citizens, we chose names and researched what our families were like, what our houses looked like etc. The students figured out what they wanted to find out. They bought along kimonos, paper lanterns they’d mad and Japanese food that they’d cooked at home. One student told us all about World War Two and another talked about the technological revolution and Japanese cars. Families were involved in the learning and students were motivated.

This worked well also for Maths. I remember a boy coming along dressed up as Elvis Presley and teaching us the 6x table to the tune of “Heartbreak Hotel.’ Everyone picked it up and easily.

So the message is to embrace and value theatre education for our youngest learners, ditch the over assessment and let these young minds develop a love for life long authentic learning.

Support this with as many performances as you can manage. They love it and this is what I’ll be discussing next time.

I’m off to build a fort and do some devising in my lounge…..look out for part 3...
Theatre gives life to life

Happy days