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.
Make ‘em laugh. The skills developed by working on a play are seriously important, but the subject of the play can be funny. Explore situation comedy, slapstick, fantasy and science-fiction. Generations of boys have learned to love reading when they encountered Douglas Adams and books such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Staging a scene from Adams’ hilarious novel will have everyone in stitches. The Hobbit crowd can begin with a remembered scene from a book or movie and take it in a new direction.
Convey a message. Simple role-playing helps younger children deal with the ups and downs of everyday life. Older children use realistic drama to deal with social issues. Writing and performing a play about a quarrel between friends or a lonely student new to the school helps children articulate the importance of friendship and what it takes to be a good friend. Making a play also gives children an opportunity to work as a team. In fact, one of the major benefits that Shepherd sees when her kindergarteners do a play is the opportunity to understand that “everyone’s role is important.”
No need to budget for costumes. Putting on a play can be as simple as writing lines and rehearsing until everyone comes in on cue and reads expressively. There is no need to fully costume each actor, but an item that fits the character adds credibility. Items as easy to find as a newspaper to rattle or a broom to lean on heighten the impact. Put together a bag or drawer of costume materials: hats, scarves, worn linens for capes and togas. Regardless of age, it’s important to give children room to invent and improvise. As Camera puts it, “Their characters became their spokespersons for ideas and forms of expression outside the parameters of formal essay writing.” It’s the opportunity to generate ideas and make expressive use of language that is most important.
Putting on a play, whether at home or at school, can be the highlight of the year. The time and effort invested in writing and performing a play pays off in so many ways. Shepherd acknowledges that it takes time to do plays with children, but she says there’s no doubt about the value of students participating in plays. “It is a win-win.”