Why Children's Theater Matters

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Updated on Jun 1, 2014

Want to boost literacy? Teach your child to imagine the unimaginable? Cultivate curiosity? Get thee to the theater, and bring your kids.

The children's theater movement is led by Europe, but the U.S. is not far behind. And we're not just talking about the bustling theater town of New York. The third largest children’s theater in the world is tucked away in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Other mid-sized cities—from Dallas, to Tempe, to Nashville, are also cooking up kids’ fare in full-time children venues.

With the introduction of No Child Left Behind, many schools that used to round out reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic with a yearly jaunt to see Shakespeare in action, or Jack ascending the beanstalk, have now scrapped these field trips in favor of spending more time preparing for standardized tests and drilling “fundamentals”. The question is, how can you, as a parent, pick up the slack?

No one would argue the importance of literacy or fractions, but study after study has shown that the arts are more than fluff. Longitudinal data of 25,000 students involved in the arts, conducted at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education by Dr. James Catterall, shows that consistent participation greatly improves academic performance and significantly bumps up standardized test scores. Students who make time for the arts are also more involved in community service, and less likely to drop out of school. And we’re not just talking about upper middle class kids. These facts remain, regardless of a child’s socio-economic background.

Peter Brosius is the Artistic Director of the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, which serves up to 350,000 young people and families a year. He says you don’t have to believe in the old phrase, “the arts for arts sake”, to find compelling reasons to bring your child to the theater on a regular basis. “When you look at the US and where the growth in the economy is, it’s evident that there’s a need for idea generators. Our country is not necessarily anymore a producer of goods. Our economy thrives because we’re a producer of ideas,” he says. “Facts are just facts and as a society, with a touch of the calculator or a hit of google, kids can find a factual answer. But that can’t teach a mind to be subtle and flexible.”

Linda Hartzell, Artistic Director of the Seattle Children’s Theater agrees. “I taught for 17 years and I’ve seen first hand that theater makes for smarter, braver, human beings. Theater helps connect the head to the heart,” she says.

Theater also connects to the importance of reading. A play has the ability to jump a story off the page and bring it to life. This can be a revelation to regular bookworms, but also a real boon to reluctant readers. “Part of it is that what’s happening on stage is very similar, in a way, to the play acting and role playing all children do. It’s live, and good plays are just a little bit ‘incomplete’, if you will—they need the audience to complete them, and they change slightly with the audience. Films, of course, are static,” says Kim Peter Kovac, President of Theatre For Young Audiences/USA (TYA/USA), a national organization for professional children’s theaters.

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