Imaginations unleashed

25th November 2005 at 00:00
looks at the creative thinking benefits of a regular dose of drama

The curative value of a regular dose of drama is well known: it improves communications skills; it raises self-esteem; it may even foster a more tolerant and empathetic generation. But drama has another very important property, all too easily overlooked in the rush to incorporate it into a citizenship lesson. It feeds the imagination, and that leads to creative thinking.

The ease with which my own children hang up their disbelief to dip in and out of imagined scenarios and realms astonishes me. Armed with nothing but a stick for a sword, my son becomes Peter Pan. Not only that, but the strength of his imagination enables him to teleport his father to Neverland too - and I become Captain Hook, albeit less convincingly.

Children's abilities to construct fictional scenarios is desperately important to their cognitive and linguistic growth, yet it often fades in the middle years of primary school. After all, what opportunities are there to "play"? And a stick, of course, is not a sword, it's a piece of wood, beginning with the consonant cluster "st-", ending in "kicking k", and rhyming with "brick".

Situational-based drama of the sort the enigmatic Dorothy Heathcote would be proud should feature more in schools. The problem is finding a way to get the children to suspend their disbelief long enough to believe in the new fictional context. The "teacher-in-role" model is a noble one - and can be so effective if he or she has the trust and respect of the children - but let's face it, we are not all Dorothy Heathcotes.

Here are a few tried and tested ways of building that all-important shared context, without the need for the teacher having to "plunge in first".

Help children to reconnect to their imaginative side by showing them a picture, or playing them a sound effect, via an interactive whiteboard.

Viewing pictures or hearing sounds together creates an instant context, supported, or validated if you like, by the children's own senses. It is the same as hot-seating different characters from a class reader, the only difference being that the context is infinitely easier to access. Provided the related activities are sufficiently creative to appeal to the children's imagination, these simple stimuli can prompt much lateral and creative exploration, encouraging pupils to use their "mind's eye".

Whether the stimulus is a photograph of a derelict house or the sound of the wind howling, it will set the children's imagination running, and that is all that is needed. Images might include interesting landscapes, buildings, animals in situ and moments of drama between strangers: anything that has a multi-dimensional quality, open to interpretation. Likewise, the sound effects chosen need to be equally open-ended.

Central to this process of stimulating a child's imagination is the idea of exploring tangents, seeing metaphors and creating scenarios (practices that often become overlooked in the race to impart - and then assess - accepted knowledge). Presenting children with new and provocative places and sounds encourages them to question, hypothesise and, most importantly, explore the potentiality in meanings and circumstances.

Once you have selected your images, introduce each one gradually by blurring and then revealing its composition, pausing to elicit the children's first impressions as more of the picture is revealed to them.

Likewise with sound effects, why not play just a second or two and let the children guess what may follow? Once an entire image or sound has been revealed to them, revisit the children's first impressions, and see how they have altered.

Encourage the children to "say what they see" (or hear), translating the visual or aural stimuli into recognisable words. Then invite the pupils to explore the "landscape" using their mind's eye - by considering, for example, what may lie behind the camera, and to the left or right of it, exploring beyond the perimeters of the photograph. Then move on from the topography of the imagined setting and begin brainstorming phrases that accurately capture the tone and mood of the place that is emerging in the children's minds. Is it eerily quiet, or bustling with people? Is it cold and austere, or warmly welcoming? Does it remind the children of places they have visited, and situations they have encountered?

Responding to visual images and sounds in this way, as they evoke thoughts, memories and feelings within us is what makes us human. The challenge for the children is to find ways of articulating those emotional responses in words, as an artist might use paints. The liberating thing here is that no one is right, and no one is wrong. Rather than concerning itself with the usual practice of testing the pupil's knowledge retention, this kind of classroom activity focuses more on perception and the pupil's ability to look at things in different ways (more akin to de Bono's model for "lateral thinking").

Once you have constructed the imaginary context together, and the children are familiar with the "landscape", set the class a series of collaborative tasks, using the speaking, listening, group discussion and drama objectives in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's Speaking, Listening, Learning handbook, as reference points. These might include: hot-seating, thought-tracking, freeze-framing, improvised role-playing, narrating, re-enacting and presenting. The theme throughout is the exploration of a shared, imaginary context that affords new roles, scenarios, paradigms and problems.

The context-related activities provide opportunities to work individually, in pairs, in groups or as a whole class, on writing projects, discussions, debates and performances.

When used in this way, images and sounds become a focus for collaborative meaning-making that stretches beyond the literal. The children become active participants, recreating fictional experiences through talk and activity. Through the portal of a photograph or sound effect, the children can, for a short while, escape their surroundings and seek out new places, while remaining within the relative safety of a classroom, and the manageable form of a class.

l Speaking, Listening, Learning from QCA Andrew Hammond is literacy co-ordinator at St Andrew's School

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