Making a drama without a crisis

All you need is a spirit of playfulness to explore issues through role-play. Moyra Boland reports

Using drama with young children is an ideal way of exploring many different topics and issues, and "teacher-in-role" is a very popular and useful approach. A teacher taking on a role with three to six-year-olds does not need the talents of a Jodie Foster or Leonardo DiCaprio, just a willingness to enter into the early years' spirit of playfulness and go with the flow.

Planning for this kind of drama is simple, provided teachers follow some key principles that apply to any good play, film or television drama:

* participants need to identify with the characters;

* they need to know the context or situation in which the characters find themselves;

* the problem or issue being explored needs to be presented;

* dramatic tension needs to be created.

Adults watching a television drama without these ingredients would find themselves wandering off, changing channels or falling asleep. Young children also need to be engaged in drama activities where these principles operate. Otherwise, they are likely to create their own "dramatic" tensions.

The nursery class at Killearn Primary in Glasgow recently performed a drama based on a pirate king who was very unhappy because his entire crew was ill and unable to sail. His ship was ready but could go nowhere without a crew.

The children were keen to help but the pirate king was unconvinced about taking on such an inexperienced crew. So the children had to undertake some training with him. They scrubbed decks, hoisted sails, prepared food and read treasure maps. Once the king was confident that they were fit to set sail, the new pirate recruits were invited on board and the adventure began.

Their quest entailed going to an island, negotiating swamps, jungles and fast-flowing rivers. The young pirates had to traverse all types of terrain and, as a group, decide how each should be negotiated. Eventually, they found the treasure trove and every pirate was allowed to take a special piece to hide in his or her coat.

Once all the pirates were safely home from the sea, they sat in a circle and, carefully removing the precious treasures from their pockets, shared them with the rest of the group.

In this drama, the participants identified with the unhappy pirate king. Their knowledge of the context was enhanced during their pirate training programme. They were presented with the captain's problem of having no crew and, in having to pass the pirate test, tension was introduced.

It was then intensified in the challenge of crossing the difficult terrain to reach the treasure, and by arousing suspense and curiosity about the treasures that fellow pirates might have secured.

These factors, combined, provided the children with an opportunity to lock into the drama.

The key for the early years practitioner is to use the teacher-in-role device. This is when the teacher takes on and maintains a role within the drama alongside the children.

It is an excellent method for initiating whole group activities where the children can work through problems or issues. It works well because it allows for their spontaneity of action.

The immediacy and excitement generated by the participants making decisions about the drama give it a flow and momentum of its own. The children can take responsibility for their decisions while being given the freedom to express their attitudes and ideas through the safety of their role.

The teacher can work alongside the children within the drama and not watch from the sidelines. She can support and encourage the drama from within rather than stopping it and making suggestions. Also, she can share the children's sense of discovery as the drama moves on.

During the Killearn Primary drama, the nursery teacher played the pirate king. This required no great acting skills to achieve credibility. All that was necessary was to say "I am a very unhappy pirate king" and let the children do the rest.

A simple piece of costume can be used as a visual symbol of the characters being played, in this case an eye-patch, black bandana, striped T-shirt or fancy hat.

Being the pirate king is a very high status role. Teachers could vary the roles they play. So, they might be the grandma who has lost her memory (a low status role); the naughty toy in the toy shop (a devil's advocate type of role); or Goldilocks's mummy, who doesn't know what to do with a daughter who keeps on breaking into bears' houses (a victim in need of help role).

The keys to using teacher-in-role in the early stages are to ensure the children have some knowledge of the context, to listen to their suggestions and to try to inject into your drama the ingredients of tension, problem-solving, decision-making and identification of characters.

Moyra Boland is lecturer in drama at Glasgow University's faculty of education. She talks on Drama the Creative Way at 10.30am, September 13

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