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The benefits of exposing children to the performing arts
By Simone Gray

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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. But the benefits of getting involved with the performing arts from a young age extend beyond entertainment.
 
Growing up has its challenges and a love of the arts (in any of its forms) can be a comforting release and offer a momentary escape from reality. The performing arts allows for healthy self-expression and helps children to understand underdeveloped parts of themselves, while also assisting them in putting things into perspective – all of which helps to empower them.
 
“Children tend to instinctively use drama auto-therapeutically, with no outside direction or superimposed structure. Dramatic play is a child’s way of symbolically expressing themselves and resolving internal conflict, releasing pent-up feelings, exploring hopes, fears and wishes, and discovering new life roles and stances, which is central to their development,” says Heather Schiff, clinical psychologist, drama therapist and director of the Bonfire Theatre Company.

 

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 both hemispheres of the brain must be activated for it to work efficiently. 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 that includes the development of creativity, 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, boost memory, encourage self-discipline and concentration, and develop interpretation skills. 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.
 
 
Taking to the Stage
 
Once an interest in theatre is established, drama classes might very well be the next step for your little ones and it’s definitely worth encouraging. “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.”
 
“Drama is a fabulous tool to inspire creativity, teach empathy, develop two-way communication, understand consequences and work towards achieving life-changing, memory-making moments,” adds Gill Brunings, director of Durban Actors Studio. “Students are taught how to become another character, to try out different choices to those they would normally make and to explore repercussions. Drama is a safe environment where everything you do is talked through in a caring and sharing environment, avoiding the dangers that such life experimentation would lead to in the ‘real’ world,” says Brunings. “Drama students are less likely to have difficulty speaking in public, will be more convincing in their written and oral communications, and will have a more positive self-image. And finally, drama teaches a student that, when preparing for a performance, you have to work. This is a huge learning curve and one that has knock-on effects throughout a young performer’s academic career.”
 
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 confident in themselves.
 
 
Keep it real
 
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 production. While your little ones will still need a certain amount of self-discipline in order to get through a show, the theatre environment will joyfully embrace the unrestrained reactions of children rather than frown upon them. 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. To encourage good behaviour, it might help to explain to your children that in order for the actors on stage to do their job, each audience member needs to remain still and quiet, and only join in when it is called for.
  • Plan for a quick getaway. If this is your child’s first visit to the theatre, it might be a good idea to get an aisle seat so you can, if necessary, duck out without disrupting the audience or cast.
  • 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 and if you need to bring a snack, ensure it is a quiet one such as a fruit roll, a biltong stick or home-made popcorn in a sandwich bag.
  • 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, bring something along to keep your little ones amused. If this fails, get somebody nearby to keep your seats and wander around the theatre complex or garden to 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 leaveBe prepared to leave. If something in the show – such as a monstrously mean witch or a particularly treacherous troll – upsets your child, take them out into the lobby to console them. Explain that the characters are only actors doing their jobs well. Don’t force them to return to the show.
  • Start a conversation. Intermission is a perfect opportunity to share thoughts about the show and ensure your children are following. If they don’t like the show, ask them to discuss what it is they don’t like and to articulate why.
 
  
Note: School holidays are a good time to find children’s theatre productions, with many theatres running special programmes. For great show ideas go to childmag.co.za and select “on stage and on screen”.

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