Monday, April 4, 2011

A Little Reflecting Goes a Long Way

In my blog post Education for the Littlest Theatergoers, I talked about how, as arts educators, we think a lot about how to prepare the very youngest of our audience members for seeing theater. As the New Vic continues to present works made specifically for toddlers, the Education Department has more and more opportunities to develop its curriculum to meet the development needs of these little ones.

Photo: Douglas McBride
This April the New Vic presents Potato Needs a Bath, a theater piece developed by Shona Reppe and Andy Manley from Scotland. It’s a birthday party for Potato and all the guests are his fruit and vegetable friends! Eggplant shows off her glamorous new jewelry, the pair of Pears dance the day away, and Plum needs a potty break. But Potato keeps hiding because he does want to take his bath to get ready for the party.

As with Egg and Spoon, the teaching artists and staff worked hard to create a pre-performance lesson plan for Potato Needs a Bath. But as we knocked our heads against the proverbial eggplant, we kept coming to the same conclusion: young people would be able to see this piece without a preparatory workshop. But what would happen if we found a way for students to reflect on their experiences after seeing the show? In the past, we have noticed that it can be difficult to return to a preschool class for a post-show workshop, especially for shows where the target audience has a wide range. It would be important to set a few parameters. The workshop should take place one to three days after seeing the show (check! All the schools have complied in scheduling the workshops) and the workshop experience should be thirty to forty-five minutes. With this in mind, we decided to go for it.

Banana napping. Photo: Douglas McBride

We wondered, how can we stay inside the show's dramatic world and still reflect? Well, in the show there is a little gift: “Banana” sleeps through the whole party. So, what if Banana visits each classroom and asks what happened? Developmentally, students two to four years old would be able to recall the show with questions like: What do you remember? Who did we meet at Potato’s party? Then, sharing their thoughts about the show: How did it make you feel when your heard the story about the Pears? What were you thinking when Potato finally got his bath?

The teaching artists and I also determined that it was important for the students to become puppeteers like Shona and animate their own fruit or vegetable, as she does in the show. So, after hearing about all the fun Potato’s fruit and vegetable friends had at the party, Banana becomes sad and cries himself to sleep. How can we cheer Banana up? What?! Throw him a surprise party?!

The students become party planners and create a check list: friends or guests (plastic fruits and vegetables), music, dancing and a surprise. Each student is given a plastic fruit or vegetable to build skills as a puppeteer. They figure out how to hold it, where its (imaginary) eyes are and take a moment to focus on what their new friend sees. Then they decide its emotional state, i.e. happy, sad, annoyed, and how it moves based on that emotion. Next on the check list is music and dancing. In pairs the students will create a dance using the emotion and movement from the previous activity.

Last but not least is the surprise! The student puppeteers can decide how they would like to surprise Banana. So when Banana wakes from his nap – boy is he surprised! Delightful music, dancing and mingling ensues. After the party, when all of our new friends are put down for a nap (in the green recyclable grocery bag), there is a discussion about the planning and execution of the party: What did you think about our party? How did we do as party planners? What did we do to make sure it was a fun party? What skills did we use as puppeteers?

These workshops will take place in early to mid-April and I for one really appreciate how productions that are created for little ones have pushed me and my colleagues to think deeper about how to extend the theater-going experience for this age group in a meaningful and theatrical way. I continue to wonder about how we can to take into account the developmental stages of preschool through Kindergarten-aged students as we create interactive experiences of theater learning.

How do other cultural organizations work with this young age group in the theater arts? What do they take into account as they build curriculum? Overall, what does quality early childhood learning look like across the arts disciplines? What more can we do for this age group? Please share what experiences you have had in this interesting and challenging area of our field.

Courtney J. Boddie is the Associate Director of Education at The New Victory Theater. She is an actor, educator and teaching artist. She holds a Masters in Educational Theatre from New York University. Ms. Boddie is on the adjunct faculty for New York University and City College of New York, CUNY in their respective Educational Theatre Graduate Programs. Currently a co-chair of the NYC Arts-in-Education Roundtable TA Affairs Committee and on the Face-to-Face Conference Committee. She has also served as facilitating partner with the New York City Department of Education Office of Arts on Special Programs to design arts education professional development for NYC Public School Teachers. @courtneyjboddie

Other resources for arts education and the importance of play in the classroom:

"Why Preschool Shouldn't Be Like School" by Alison Gopnik

"Classroom and Playground, All Rolled Into One" by John Schwartz

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