Last week, we began our ThinkTheatre in-school residency program with the first two of our over 200 scheduled sessions. After signing in and presenting the front office with no less than four forms of identification (driver’s license, county clearance badge, school security badge, and my Gulfshore Playhouse name tag), I made my way across elementary school campus towards the pre-kindergarten classrooms.
The pre-K classes that I had come to work with are a part of the Head Start Program, an initiative headed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services to provide early childhood education, health, and parenting services to low-income families. In talking with the classroom teachers for the school prior to my visit, we discussed the most pressing issues facing these students. We mutually decided that social-emotional learning was the most important subject to address.
Why kick off our residency in these classes with social-emotional learning? Children from low-income homes are disproportionately likely to experience risk factors that increase the probability of poor social and emotional development, which in turn affects their academic performance as well as social and emotional well-being. Moreover, the theatre arts are a wonderful way to teach social-emotional learning. What better way to identify what an emotion feels and looks like than to act it out? What better way to practice interpersonal relationship and communication skills than to role-play scenarios?
As I entered the classrooms, it was clear that the children were excited and ready to learn. Sitting on the storytime rug, they watched, enraptured, as I procured several puppets from my box of supplies. I held up the puppets, one by one, asking the children to tell me how they thought the puppet was feeling. The students were easily able to identify the “happy” puppet, but the more complex emotions were more difficult for them to recognize.
As I began to point to different parts of the puppet’s face—the knitted-together eyebrows, the wide-open eyes, the downward-curving mouth—realization began to dawn over the students’ faces. They began to recognize emotions on the faces of the puppets—“Her eyebrows go down because she is MAD!” “His mouth is open big because he is SURPRISED!”—and were able to mimic these facial expressions themselves.
Of course, after this “game”, the students were eager to make their own puppets! I passed out blank puppet faces and crayons, and guided the students through a conversation about what a puppet is. The students drew their puppets—most looking very much like the artists themselves—and were ecstatic to share their puppets with me and with each other.
We used the student’s puppets to explore emotive body language. I asked them to show me what their bodies do when they feel that way. This came quickly to the students; without hesitation, they made their puppets dance for “happy”; stomped their puppets up and down for “mad”, and drooped their puppets’ heads for “sad”.
It is clear to me that the pre-K students had more than a theatre arts experience through ThinkTheatre. They gained tools for emotional expression and social interaction that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. The power of theatre in the classroom is greater than you could ever imagine—until you see it at work!