Although most of us are used to observing the world on TV, the intimate joys of experiencing entertainment outside the box can be a real treat. In addition, there are a host of other benefits and lessons that children take away from getting involved with the performance arts from a young age.
Most obviously, if we expose our children to drama and theatre, they are likely to develop an appreciation for the arts. But there are emotional and psychological benefits too. Growing up has its challenges and a love of the arts (in any of its forms) can be a comforting release or offer a momentary escape.
Heather Schiff, clinical psychologist, drama therapist and co-director of the Bonfire Theatre Company, explains why theatre and or participation in drama is so important, “Children instinctively use drama auto-therapeutically, with no outside direction or superimposed structure. Dramatic play is a child’s way of symbolically expressing and resolving internal conflict, releasing pent-up feelings, exploring hopes, fears and wishes, and discovering new life roles and stances, which is central to any child’s development.”
Theatre and drama enable children to recognise how to express themselves physically and emotionally in a healthy manner, help them understand under-developed parts of themselves, and assist them in putting things into perspective – all of which can go a long way to empowering them.
The Transcendence of Theatre
Perhaps, though, it is the stretching within (and outside of) our comfort zones that reveals the most obvious social benefits of theatre. Through puppetry, acting or physical theatre we can expose our children to tales of other cultures, historical events and traditions. We can teach our children to appreciate and respect another’s personality, experiences and talents, and create spaces for community dialogue to introduce our young citizens to many points of view.
Heather believes this is particularly relevant for South Africa. “In terms of the South African situation and fostering connections between people,” she says, “watching theatre or participating in drama is an excellent means of creating empathy and facilitating an understanding of others’ feelings. While watching theatre we can be transported into the hearts, minds, bodies and stories of others in a way that can transcend race, class, gender and age. In this way, deeper levels of communication and understanding can be reached.”
In addition, performance arts, through the development of the imagination, promote creative thinking, a life skill that is beneficial in all spheres of our lives. Children who are able to think creatively will often become the entrepreneurs of the future and leaders in industry – as they have the ability to invent solutions and create something where yesterday there was nothing.
Neuroscientists have established that for the brain to work efficiently, both hemispheres must be activated. Therefore, it is important to stimulate, develop and exercise the right brain (the creative and visual centre) as well as the left brain (where verbal, analytical and logical functions are located) in all children (whether any creative aptitude is shown or not). By ensuring we provide a comprehensive education, we are in fact working more effectively to achieve optimum performance of the brain.
And what an excellent way to increase vocabulary, improve communication and listening skills, assist in memory, self-discipline and concentration, and develop interpretation skills Р outside of a classroom. One of the best things is that with live performance these educational benefits are all developed in an interesting, entertaining and fun environment, which doesn’t seem like learning at all.
If the prospect of trying to get your children to abide by theatre etiquette is putting you off, here are some tips that might help to keep the drama on stage rather than in the audience…
- Choose the right show. The best place to start is by taking your child to an age-appropriate theatre production. While your little ones will still need a certain amount of self-discipline in order to get through the entire show, the theatre environment will joyfully embrace the unrestrained reactions of your children rather than frown upon it. You can be certain that child-friendly productions will have bright costumes and jolly jokes to engage and entertain young minds. You can “promote” young theatregoers as they grow and are able to appreciate and enjoy more challenging works.
- Do your homework. Prepare your child in the days leading up to the show. Introduce them to the story and the characters they will meet; if there is a book about the play, read it together. Part of what makes these outings so special is the excitement and build up – so, work it.
- Be clear about expected behaviour. Let your children know how they are expected to behave. It might help to explain that in order for the actors on stage to do their job, each audience member needs to remain still and quiet when it is time to do so, and join in when it is called for.
- Plan for a quick getaway. If this is your child’s first time at the theatre, it might be a good idea to get an aisle seat so you can, if necessary, duck out without disrupting the audience.
- Cover all bases. On the day, make sure your child is well rested. The tired “niggles” can be tough at any time, never mind in a theatre. Make sure your child has eaten before the show. If you need to bring a snack, ensure it is a quiet one such as fruit roll, a biltong stick or home-made popcorn in a sandwich bag. Make sure all have had a toilet break before the start.
- Get your timing right. A long wait before curtain call can derail a smooth operation. If unassigned seating means you need to arrive earlier to get a spot that suits your family, make sure you bring something quiet to amuse your little ones. If this fails, get somebody nearby to keep your seats and wander around the theatre complex or garden and burn off a little energy. Theatres are fascinating places so, if you have extra time, explore the environment. Chat about the sets if possible. Point out the lighting grid. As your child gets older, it might just be these inner workings that hook their interest.
- Be prepared to leave. If something in the show – such as a monstrously mean witch or a particularly treacherous troll upsets your child, take him out into the lobby to console him. Explain that the characters are only actors doing their jobs well. Don’t force him to return to the show.
- Talk about it. Intermission is a perfect opportunity to share thoughts about the show and ensure your children are following. Remember, they don’t have to like every show but make each trip worthwhile by getting them to discuss what it is they don’t like and articulate why.
Taking to the Stage
Once an interest in theatre is established, drama classes might very well be the next step for your little ones. Here’s how they’ll benefit:
“Drama classes are a fantastic means of developing confidence, self-esteem and essential communication skills,” says Duncan Rice of The Helen O’Grady Drama Academy, which has centres in all the major cities around the country. “Releasing a child’s creative and expressive potential through drama is one of the keys to healthy educational development.”
“All sorts of children benefit,” adds Andrea Nel, director of the Rising Star Academy in Durban. “The extrovert gets a chance to act out and enjoy herself. The introvert learns to come out of his shell by participating in games and taking part as a group with less pressure. A child with ADHD, for instance, may also benefit as the environment allows children to be active and creative but at the same time teaches self-control.”
So, while you may not want to encourage your children to emulate Hollywood’s many poor role models, taking part in a little dramatic expression might be just what they need to become more confidently themselves.
Note: School holidays are particularly good times to find children’s theatre productions, with many theatres running special programmes. See What’s on for great show ideas – search in the on stage & on screen category.