Drama can help four-year-olds improve their critical thinking skills, and provide them with ideas and resources for thinking about and answering questions.
This was the central finding of some classroom-based research carried out recently with American kindergarten and pre-school children in Iowa, and presented at an international conference on "Researching drama and theatre in education" held at Exeter University earlier this year.
The experiment was conducted by Gretta Berghammer, head of the department of theatre at the University of Northern Iowa, and an experienced teacher trainer. "It will give teachers another tool, even when they haven't been trained to use drama at this level," she said.
Critical thinking is much discussed in America, being seen as one of the four core elements of early childhood education, alongside literacy, problem-solving and socialisation. "But it's no good children having knowledge if they can't apply it to a variety of situations," she said.
Although there is a wealth of research going on at pre-school level, hers is the first study to link drama and critical thinking. Another motive for carrying it out was the fact that drama tends to be overlooked in teacher training in the arts.
Gretta Berghammer did her research in the Malcolm Price School in the small mid-west town of Cedar Falls, Iowa, a "laboratory school" on the university campus, where student teachers and academics try out new ideas, and where the predominantly white middle-class children are accustomed to being used as guinea pigs.
For eight weeks she held creative drama lessons for 30-45 minutes a day, three days a week. The lessons were integrated into topic work on Autumn and Food. Meanwhile a control group worked on the same topics with the class teacher, but were not exposed to any drama.
The test four and five-year-olds focused mainly on mime, movement and story. For example, Gretta Berghammer would tell them a story, which the children would then discuss and dramatise.
To test the effect of the lessons, she conducted video-taped interviews at the beginning, middle and end of the study. The children's responses were then scored for the number of words used, as well as the number and type of verbal and dramatic ideas they came up with.
The results showed that using drama in this way significantly increased the children's ability to predict and evaluate, as well as to create, imagine and plan.
Before and after the research, the children were questioned on how they felt about, for example, getting up in front of the class, working with children they didn't know, acting out a story, pretending to be something else, and showing their feelings. Because the children were pre-readers, they answered these questions by pointing to one of three facial diagrams (smile, frown and neutral) that best illustrated how they felt. The results showed an improvement in their attitudes to communicating with their teacher, to working with other children, and to socialising.
Gretta Berghammer said the research backed up earlier studies that showed that critical thinking can be improved by devoting time and attention to imaginative thinking rather than merely to producing logical and analytical answers.