The Play’s the Thing

When it comes to theatrical productions, variety rules the stage. You’ll find comedy, tragedy, political commentary, romance, satire, drama, history and more. Sometimes there’s even singing. In the pretend world of the theater, everything goes. And it’s all fun. From minimalist sets and monologues to grand designs and chorus lines, works of theater are a joy to behold. Especially at home.

Ask any parent who’s just witnessed their child’s first performance in a spontaneous, at-home staging of something called, “I Am a Gorilla” or “Winnie-the-Pooh Hates Mosquitoes” — they’ll tell you that there are few pleasures in life more enjoyable than watching your child create and perform.

And it’s fun for the kids, too. Youngsters of all ages love to participate in skits, puppet shows and plays. Donning costumes, creating props, trying out new personalities and experimenting with funny voices — the trappings of dramatic play are thrilling to the limitless imaginations of children.

But dramatic play is more than just fun. According to Julie Fishell, adjunct assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and resident actor with Playmakers Repertory Company, parents have good reason to encourage dramatic play in children. “Drama activities, including improvised and scripted events, capitalize on kinesthetic awareness [a sensory experience based on physical movement] and participation. Researchers note that from early childhood until the fourth or fifth grade, we are slowly encouraged to sacrifice kinesthetic learning for auditory learning. By championing the visual, aural and kinesthetic experiences of the individual child, dramatic play reinforces discovery and inventiveness.”

The kinesthetic creativity encouraged by dramatic play is also beneficial in group situations, says Fishell. “Drama attempts to build a bridge and unite or connect all participants,” she explains. “Our culture is slowing moving from actual to virtual experience. Adding experiences that engage students in real time where they are breathing the same air and contemplating the same questions in a group is important. It is easy for us all to solitarily sit behind computers and feel alone in our learning and our discovery.”

Alone or in a group, dramatic play also helps children explore new and potentially scary emotions.

Helen Dawkins performs regularly as “Ms. Ester” and supplies the voice of “Barlett” at Kazoom Children’s Theater in Raleigh. She is also a performer and co-owner of The Carolina Puppet Theater. In these roles, she’s watched hundreds of children interact with onstage characters. She believes that children benefit from dramatic play in several important ways. “Play acting or using puppets allows children to test situations,” she says, “to find out what is appropriate and how other people react to them. It allows them to ‘hide’ behind the character to explore areas of their personality they might normally avoid. They can also imitate people in their lives, putting themselves in that person’s shoes.”

In this sense, Dawkins says, dramatic play helps children understand the feelings and actions of others. “In a structured setting, a skit may involve the feeling of beauty, power, kindness as well as meanness and anger,” she explains. “Acting these out and learning the moral of the story is the next closest thing to actually experiencing the situation in reality. If a part is given to a child, it might stretch them in ways they might otherwise not experience.”

Fishell agrees: “I believe that learning to empathize, relate and personalize what is human can open a student’s mind to questioning and bettering the world we live in. Drama allows us to see choice in action and then see the repercussions of that choice without creating permanent consequences.”

Dawkins also recognizes the confidence boost offered by role-playing and other kinds of improvisation. “We all will sometime or other have to speak in front of people,” says Dawkins. “Dramatic play gives children the confidence to do that. It promotes animation when speaking. And it is practice for life situations.”

Encouraging kids to dabble in drama is about more than wanting your child to be a movie star or the center of attention at family gatherings. Dramatic play is educational, beneficial and, most importantly, lots of fun.