Since Plop! opened, we’ve repeatedly heard stories similar to the one above. Kids in the audience don’t just enjoy the show, they want to be a part of it – and take it home with them. This is no accident. Windmill Theatre, the company behind the show, has carefully crafted the plot and style of the production for kids ages 2 to 5.
As Jonathan and I watched the show (and watched our audiences watch the show) we were struck by the company’s precise attention to the developmental needs of audiences this age. Kids ages 2 to 5 are still exploring what it means to “pretend” and what it means to play. They are discovering their creative voice.
Based on our conversations, I’ve highlighted seven strategies the company uses to encourage playful exploration. Feeling inspired, we’ve also suggested ways that you as parents can help extend this experience at home – and play along!
1. Give permission to play: While most kids this age have no trouble leaping seamlessly between reality and their imagination, verbal cues are imperative in encouraging creativity as well as creating boundaries for playing pretend. In a performance this past week, a young audience member called out “those aren’t real rabbits!” to the performers. They responded by asking, “We know, but do you want to play along?” The response was direct and also encouraged the child to make the choice to play, rather than making any demands. When playing with your own child, be sure to ask questions rather than always making declarative statements. And remember, making a clear verbal distinction when entering and leaving any imaginary situation will develop a child’s ability to analyze situations for truth and context.
2. Know when to lead (and when to follow): It’s pretty darn adorable when kids in the audience mimic the actors on stage – but it’s also part of a developmental process of trying new behaviors and different social roles. Though there are times when mimicry might not be appropriate, it delights us to see kids taking on the posture or facial expression of an actor on stage. Outside the theater, be patient when kids mimic you. Most times their intention is not mockery but simply understanding. Alternately, letting a 3 or 4 year old take the lead and adopting their language patterns or physical behavior yourself is empowering for the child. It’s sometimes easy to forget how much power adults have over young kids, so take a risk and let them be the boss once in a while - we wouldn't be surprised if you pick up a thing or two from them.
3. Play along: For years, researchers have documented the impact play and make-believe have on a child’s social skills. Our earliest understanding of right and wrong is shaped not only by actual experience but also by our imaginations. When the performers in Plop! decide to trick the bear, we’ve heard multiple kids murmur “it’s not nice to play tricks.” But here’s the real trick – kids have been found to quickly stop playing with adults when their adult companions attempt to steer a game of pretend toward an educational or moral goal. It’s not much fun to play by yourself, but for a kid, it also ceases to be fun when you don’t get to come to your own conclusion about something. Be sure you’re engaging in the imaginary circumstances rather than directing the activity.
4. Find a small, defined space: Windmill Theatre has carved out a space in the theater for young patrons who become upset or agitated. At the back of the playing space is a small rug for adults to sit with their kids to soothe their fears. Most kids this age feel safest and most comfortable in small, enclosed spaces – there is a reason we all loved hiding under blankets or in coat closets as kids. When taking on imaginary roles or exploring a make-believe situation, an intimate or enclosed space is always best. Research would suggest that parents also feel more comfortable in a private space where they know that their peers aren’t watching them pretend to be a horse or a pirate.
5. Put on a costume: The music in Plop! is incredibly fun – and it’s performed by a DJ dressed as a bear (does it get any better?). However, the DJ’s costume is key. Rather than wearing a bear suit or mask, it’s simply a brown hoodie with ears. The simplicity of this costume choice gives a clear signal to the audience that when the hood is on, an adult man is just pretending to be a bear. In turn, they pretend to be scared of the bear rather than having any reason to believe that there is actually a living, breathing bear in the. When playing with kids, don’t underestimate the power of a great costume – but also remember that a “costume” can be any household object. And the next time you buy any sort of costume for a child’s costume trunk, consider buying a complementary costume in an adult size. You'll thank us later.
6. Use your senses: Not only is there a DJ dressed as a bear, there’s also a dance break in the show, and it comes right at that moment when some of the youngest patrons start to get wiggly. There is a time to sit quietly and be still, but any game of make-believe will be more fun if it uses our other senses. Be it the music, the dancing, or the opportunity to touch the rabbits and props, Windmill has thoughtfully created a piece of theater that is multi-sensory. Don’t hesitate to do the same at home! As adults, we’ve been around long enough to know how certain things sound, smell, taste or feel, but kids are still developing an understanding of their world and should be encouraged to investigate whenever possible. So the next time you’re “playing house,” don’t hesitate to get out a bag of flour or test the texture of the cheese grater. And remember – flying, swimming, floating or even slithering from one place to the next is always more fun than walking.
7. Create your own magic: There’s a moment in the performance when an actor puts a red apple into a basket and pulls out a green apple. Shocked, he drops the green apple back into the basket only to pull out a banana. It’s a simple moment of theatrical sleight of hand, but it nevertheless caused a young boy in yesterday’s performance to audibly gasp and whisper “it’s magic!” In reviewing research to prepare for this blog, we’ve found multiple authors who have studied preschoolers’ understanding of objects and object transformations. Children between the ages of 2 to 5 are developing an understanding of how things work and how things change. For them, natural order and the natural world are still a source of magic. Encourage this. When they have a question about how something works or how something changes, answer them honestly and directly. But we adults are far too attached to concrete realities, so don’t be afraid create some magic of your own – a wooden spoon can be a sword, a bed can be an island and just about anything could very well be a teleportation device to alternate realities.
This blog was written by Blake McCarty, Media Manager, in collaboration with the Assistant Director of Education, Jonathan Shmidt.