Theater has existed for thousands of years, and at PS 8, it is currently part of the weekly curriculum for children from pre-kindergarten through grade five. There are long-term countless benefits to studying drama in school from such a young age. Children are able to use the skills they learn to help them succeed in other areas, from the (current) playground to the (future) board room.
Recently, I sat down with PS 8 drama teacher Adriane Erdos to learn more about why theater is an important subject for elementary schoolers. She explained some of the benefits, gave a little advice to parents and guardians looking to incorporate theater and pretend play into daily life, and broke down the curriculum by year, explaining that it is a “cohesive, comprehensive, progressive” program, meaning that each year builds upon the one(s) that came before.
“Making literature come to life and making it something specifically about the person reading it (is key),” according to Ms. Erdos. Skills that can be learned and reinforced in drama class include confidence, social interaction, reading, comprehension, emoting, empathy, emotional identification, waiting, personal discipline, overcoming stage fright, improved communication, sequencing, following directions, being imaginative, taking control, creativity, public speaking, relating to each other, how to be a respectful audience, improvization, collaboration, expression through movement, strategic thinking, and gaining a better understanding of settings and characterizations.
Parents and guardians can help lend their support by encouraging kids to use their imaginations in everyday life. One suggestion from Ms. Erdos is to ask children to re-imagine an object, asking, for example, “What else could this scarf be? What can it do?” Another idea is to do improvization with children – which can be especially helpful when it comes to matters of conflict resolution (and encouraging children to put themselves in another person’s shoes). Pretend play is a favorite of many young children. Don’t be afraid to play along! “Talking gibberish” is especially fun with younger children, Ms. Erdos says, plus it’s a great way to “encourage communication through body language and expression.” Also, when reading, encourage kids to put themselves in the place of the characters, “to be the main character.” Ask questions about how children can relate to the characters and what they would do in a character’s situation. Don’t just read the story – enter the story.
Drama by Grade
Pre-kindergarten: Eric Carle
Pre-schoolers are reading Eric Carle’s stories in their classrooms (The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Very Busy Spider, etc.) so Ms. Erdos has the students put on The Very Quiet Cricket. Kids are exposed to sequencing and work on their communications and waiting abilities. In performance, each child has his/her own line and movement.
Kindergarten: Fairy Tales
It is this year that children learn how to be good audience members. In each class, students take turns acting and watching. They have the freedom to ad-lib lines, work on characters and settings, and answer questions like, “How would Little Red Riding Hood walk?” They get into their characters through physicality, and seeing the story from various perspectives.
First Grade: Ezra Jack Keats
First grade is all about imagination and creativity. With Keats’s The Snowy Day, Ms. Erdos is looking to “exercise all of (students’) senses. What does the snow feel like? What does it smell like?” They become Peter and the classroom becomes the storm. They use their imaginations to touch, taste, see, hear, smell . . . it ends in a very elaborate play. This requires a lot of discipline as the kids need to work on movement, blocking, learning their lines, and rehearsing.
Second Grade: Fractured Fairy Tales
“The arts have a powerful effect on (students) as a way to connect what they’re learning to something tangible.” The words on the page come alive. This is when they start to use improvization. They break into groups and each group is assigned a fairy tale. The kids come up with a setting and adjust the characters, then act out the scenes. Ms. Erdos watches these scenes and uses the kids’ ideas to create scripts for them so they can learn their lines, rehearse, and perform.
Third Grade: Folk Tales
The students start by reading a few folk tales. Ms. Erdos “loves that they’re really directly about how to live your life.” The performance play is based on a tale called “Jumping Mouse.” The basic plot is as follows: a mouse wants to get to a far off land and has to face challenges along the way. For the kids, the mouse represents third grade, and the far off place, fourth. Ms. Erdos puts them into groups, and each group creates a different challenge for the mouse (for example, be kind to someone who needs help, face a distraction, etc.). They create scenes and write the lines.
Fourth Grade: Improvisation
A lot of improvization games are played in fourth grade. The kids start getting into conflict and resolution (drama = conflict). One game is called Entrance & Exit. Person A has to get Person B to stay in a scene, but Person B has to go. It makes for “an impossible situation.” The kids have to be strategic, clever, and determined in achieving their goal (to stay or to go).
Fifth Grade: Shakespeare
Fifth graders are introduced to the bard through arguably his most famous work – Romeo and Juliet, a tale of star-crossed lovers who take their lives when their feuding families try to keep them apart. Students learn the synopsis of the play and are taught the prologue (“Two households, both alike in dignity . . .”) in addition to play-related theater games. Though the play is edited, Ms. Erdos only uses the original language, but makes it clear to kids that no actor should speak a word he or she does not understand. Students work together on translation while also working on enunciation, memorization, and relating to their characters. Each group chooses their own setting (for example, teens in a school, a room at home) in an attempt to take the play out of Verona and into modern day America.
By Nicole Panteleakos
Photo credit to Nathalie Schueller