All the world's a stage

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Diana Hinds meets a theatre company that introduces drama into geography

Geography and drama are not obvious bedfellows in the crowded primary curriculum. But given teachers' search for ways to make geography more appealing, and the Government's pronouncements on getting creativity back into the classroom, it might be a cross-curricular mix worth trying.

For teachers who are not quite sure how to go about this, the Freshwater Theatre Company has done much of the ground-work.

The company was formed six years ago by two former primary teachers with a strong interest in drama, Helen Wood and Carol Tagg, with the aim of taking dramatic productions and workshops into schools.

They began, naturally enough, with history, a subject ripe for role-play and dressing up. Their first show was a lively romp through the Tudor age, in which a time-traveller comes face to face with a host of characters, including a lady-in-waiting, an executioner, Sir Francis Drake and Elizabeth I. Gradually, the company extended its work to Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, and last year, with a staff of about 20 actorteachers, decided to take the more experimental step into geography.

"Drama for geography doesn't exist," says Helen Wood, who got involved in community theatre as a teenager and always loved geography. "But all the techniques that we were using in the history workshops - creating tableaux, using role-play, hot-seating, setting up debates - lend themselves equally well to other subjects."

So it is that a group of children from Years 3 and 4 at Melcombe Primary School in west London, find themselves one morning re-enacting the water cycle in the gym. "We're going to recreate the water cycle with our bodies, and you've got to put lots of energy into it," instructs Imogen Rands, a trained actress with teaching experience in Japan, who is leading this one-hour workshop on rivers and water.

After the children warm up their imaginations by listening to music, internalising river images and thinking up words to do with water, Imogen Rands divides them into small groups to devise movements for each stage of the water cycle - stretching arms and waggling fingers to illustrate evaporation, and sliding on their backs across the floor as the rainfall flows back into the sea. They perform the whole cycle as a "television programme" watched by their class teacher, Roz Hemingway, who then "plays" the video fastforward while they run it - with a degree of hilarity - at double speed, twice through.

In preparation for this session, the class has already discussed the water cycle. But taking part in a drama will help them understand and remember it, say Helen Wood and her colleagues. Children who are kinaesthetic learners - perhaps 20 per cent of this class - will particularly benefit, says Roz Hemingway.

"I've learned what the clouds do to make rain and stuff," says seven-year-old Claudia.

"I've learned about evaporation," says Noughan, nine. "I didn't know what it was before, but now I do."

"I'll remember the water cycle going round and round," says Dejee, eight.

Later in the workshop, the children stage a water debate, which takes the form of a chat show. One row of children represents countries in the developed world which have plenty of water; and in the facing row, countries such as Africa, India and parts of China, where water is in short supply.

Imogen Rands, chat-show hostess, walks between the two rows with her "microphone", and attempts to stir up a dialogue about the need for more money to dig wells.

This debate, Helen Wood says, works very well with Years 5 and 6 children who are already versed in its ideas and vocabulary. But even the younger children get into the spirit of the thing, and come up with some interesting ideas of their own, such as dropping bottled water on Africa from aircraft, or sending water from this country in special pipes.

Whatever the outcome, the debate has made them think.

"I learned that some countries are poor and some other countries are not," says Aaliyah, eight.

"I thought everybody had water," says Khariah, eight.

Ideally, a session like this works best when children are already immersed in a geography topic, or nearing its end, says Helen Wood. But activities such as the debate have enormous follow-up potential in terms of new vocabulary and opportunities for creative writing. The time devoted to drama is well spent, she believes: "You might spend an hour in the classroom just drawing a picture of the water cycle. But in an hour's drama session, you can enact a whole range of ideas."

The company has visited about 900 schools in London and the South-east since its launch, and many sign up year after year. Brady Primary School, Rainham, has worked with the company since its inception.

The workshops have done much for pupils' speaking and listening skills, says Trevor Bradbury, Brady's headteacher, and he is keen for staff to use the drama strategies wherever they can across the curriculum.

"The younger teachers in particular need a bit of help, because of the more narrow curriculum in place when they did their training. But now we're being encouraged by the Government to widen out again, and these kinds of activities are very useful."

Tel: 020 7241

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