Arts

The Play’s the Thing

Even before they begin school, kids rehearse behavior and learn about their place in the world by playing pretend. Later in their development, there is much that kids can continue to learn from a more institutionalized form of pretend: the theater. 

Whether in school or out, the particular embodied storytelling of drama is a ready-made training ground for empathy and imagination. Learning to identify with characters who are different from themselves can help students practice empathy for others, and make them more capable readers and writers as a result. A student’s ability to draw connections between their own experience and the experience of a character in a play, a figure in history, or even an animal on the food chain is strengthened by the creative empathy practice of the theater — and these connections make learning far more effective. Studies have shown that the more students can activate their imagination to identify with the narrative nature of what they’re learning in school, the better they’ll retain knowledge and reach a real understanding of the material. The brain likes to think in terms of stories — and a little imagination can help transform almost any kind of content into a story with its own, memorable characters. 

Many students have trouble adapting to the discussion format of a busy classroom, adjusting to the school social environment, or dealing with the nerves of public speaking. Drama games can help build confidence that students will flex in their presentations and everyday conversations. Although they can feel silly, these games push students out of their comfort zone in a safe environment. Watching their peers take risks in getting up onstage encourages students to express themselves confidently and creatively. And when the school play rolls around, students have the chance to take some share of ownership in a deeply collaborative project, developing a sense of community that becomes a home for many. 

There’s an educational case to be made for going out to the theater as well! In a world saturated with film and television, attending a live performance requires a different, more active kind of listening. This engagement trains a careful attention that is increasingly rare in the age of screens. If your student is struggling to digest a classic Shakespeare play in school, taking in a live version can be a game changer, bringing the playwright’s words from page to stage in a way that unlocks the story. 

More than anything, theater is a fun, liberating opportunity for students to tell stories and develop their confidence and emotional intelligence. It’s an ancient tradition whose importance for expressing the spirit of the times and exploring human connection isn’t going away, even in the age of technology, and it deserves a place in our education system.

Notes on the Page: Music in Education

Although state education budgets do not always reflect it, the value of music in education has been well documented in the scientific literature. Studies have shown that music training has beneficial effects for spatial reasoning, literacy, and verbal memory; recently, researchers have even developed a line of data in support of music education as a “creative and cost-effective” form of treatment for language-based learning disorders. The developing brains of young musicians benefit from the multi-modal nature of music: it involves precise physical coordination, emotional expression, and careful looking and listening, all at the same time. But it’s important to remember that there is plenty to value in music education that goes beyond these technical, cognitive gains.

One of the most important lessons in any student’s education, and one that is not explicitly taught in many school curricula, is how to be a smart and effective learner. For most students, learning to learn is something that happens over several years, in a relatively undirected, inefficient, and often frustrating process of trial and error. Taking on the challenge of a new instrument can provide a perfect learning laboratory for instilling the habits of great students that don’t come naturally to many: the discipline of daily practice, pride in easy to measure improvements (and those that are harder to quantify), knowing when and how to ask for help when encountering the unknown, struggling to get it right (and knowing that’s okay), and celebrating commitment and hard work, all in a fun and expressive environment. Much more than his or her new skill on the cello, these learning lessons will transfer over to the invaluable student skills that kids need to make the most of their education.

When students have the chance to play their new instrument as part of a young ensemble of musicians, they also develop an understanding of teamwork and collaboration that is not always on offer in the classroom. Many students dread group projects in school, and with good reason; coordinating the efforts of individuals in a group can be a social and academic nightmare. In the context of a school orchestra or band, however, collaboration and teamwork are the norm. Any ensemble experience involves learning to listen carefully and play in unison, balance different parts from the different sections, and achieve a group vision of how the piece should work, both technically and emotionally. There’s an opportunity here for students to develop leadership skills, and to support one another’s growth as members of the same section work to perfect their parts in small groups. 

Even apart from the cognitive benefits scientists have attributed to music education, trying out a new instrument provides invaluable learning experiences to young students. As a testing ground where they can learn to learn, and an inherently collaborative activity, music deserves a place in any child’s education. It’s also, importantly, a chance for kids to express themselves in a new and vital way, and to appreciate a human tradition of music that they will encounter every day for the rest of their lives.