Part I: The Theatre and Social-Emotional Learning

By Jacqueline Pearce, MHC

During the early years, children spend an extensive proportion of their waking hours engaged in expressive activities such as drawing, painting, molding clay, singing, while pretending to be teachers, heroes, parents, babies, monsters or animals. Yet, in many instances, as soon as children arrive at school, however, they are expected to put aside such activities and sit quietly in their seats.

In the earliest stages of this age group, parents and teachers are frequently the most important individuals in a student’s life; however, by ages 5-7, friendships within students’ own peer group gain increasing social importance as well. Learners at this stage are very social and talkative, and Arts experiences are often primarily linked to social experiences. For example, students are often very interested in “re-telling” pictorial accounts to peers and adults, especially as their images become more representational.

As learners begin to explore the relationship between themselves and the world around them, and are given opportunities where they begin working in small groups or participating in full-class activities in theatre instruction; cooperative skills and communication abilities are fostered and developed. The theatre is a safe place for young children to try new things and to make mistakes that become learning opportunities. Scott Plate, actor, director, writer, Associate Professor and Area Coordinator of Music Theater at Baldwin Wallace stated, “The environment showcases how words can change things for better or for worse, providing a space for rehearsal, so that the learner can do it “wrong” and then do it “right”. This is important for learners to witness language’s negative, as well as, positive effects, engendering an understanding that one has to be responsible for one’s words”.

Theatre activities can be used to teach:

  • Emotion recognition and expression
  • Discerning differences among passive, aggressive and assertive behaviors
  • Empathy and learning to listen
  • Effective communication skills, behaviors and gestures (verbal and non-verbal)
  • Accountability
  • Group collaboration
  • Understanding that language is essentially a tool for change
  • Strategies to handle social situations and critical social skills
  • Writing skills (writing plays or soliloquies)
  • Public speaking

Theatre is fun, motivating, and in a highly structured setting it may encourage confidence, self-esteem, cooperative group work, reflective mindsets, critical skills through self-expression, as well as, academic growth of young learners.

When asked to describe the social-emotional skills that may be developed by learners at the elementary level who participate in theatre groups, Victoria Bussert, renowned Director, Director of the Music Theatre Program at Baldwin Wallace, and Professor of Theatre summed it up beautifully, “How to work as a group toward a common goal, how to listen to different points of views, and how combined imaginations can inspire new thinking and new creativity”.

Next: Part II: Dance and Social-Emotional Learning

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