Serious Play: Writing and Performing Plays With Children

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Updated on Mar 21, 2013

There are many ways of sorting people into groups. One of the most important groupings for a parent to be aware of is extrovert vs. introvert. Extroverts outnumber introverts three to one. Extroverts are natural performers, but writing and acting out plays isn’t only for them. Introverts can also experience the important challenges, liberation and fun of performing.

Does your child take a big step back and say, “I can’t” when asked to present a project in front of the class? She, like many children who resist presenting in class, may be a perfectionist whose standards are so high they are hard to meet. She may dread failure, but when the task is performing as a character, she suddenly relaxes. It’s a liberating experience that often leads to increased achievement in writing as well as speaking.

Maggie Shepherd is a veteran kindergarten teacher at Marin School in Albany, California, who has been doing plays with children for decades. “There are so many skills they are honing, being able to interpret their character’s emotions, developing more language experience, memorizing, self-discipline and being a team player,” she says.

The benefits of writing and performing plays are not limited to youngsters. When John Camera taught creative writing at several colleges in New York City, he invited students to transform stories and poems into plays. Camera found that students “felt free to not only express their own ideas but express them in a way unique to them.” As Camera suggests, writing and performing plays is an exciting challenge. All that’s needed to put on a play—at home or at school—is a good story or poem and a few items you already have on hand.

Make a play from a poem. Invite children to act out the lines of a poem. For example, Sky Seasoning, a poem in Shel Silverstein’s famous book Where the Sidewalk Ends, describes a piece of sky falling into a bowl of soup. Children get to imagine what a piece of sky looks like and stage the fall, which is punctuated in the poem with a huge “Kerplop!” Imagine the energy building up as your child and a couple of friends read the poem and memorize the lines.

They call first for the literal props and you oblige with a folding table, an old tablecloth and the plastic salad bowl you use for picnics. Then they start talking about that piece of sky. How big is it? What color? Can it be made from cardboard? What about a piece of packing foam? As the set comes together, the children run through their lines. Your creative genius comes up with the idea of making the “Kerplop!” echo by repeating it. It’s hard to decide what’s more fun—getting ready for the performance or the performance itself—but one thing is for sure: The thought, visualization and creative use of language that go into a play are all valuable.

Improvise and record a play. Children naturally follow the classic piece of writing advice: Write what you know. Let children invent their own plays by improvising with hand puppets and homemade masks. Their characters will be themselves, friends and family, pets, TV personalities and heroes from familiar stories. Encourage them to run through the same scene several times and then write the lines down. A few minutes of dialogue can develop into a scene with characters, setting, conflict and resolution—everything you need to create a play. When the play is ready for performance, record it and send it to family and friends. Your child will love to see herself on stage, and positive feedback from the virtual audience is a powerful incentive to do more plays.

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