From our very early beginnings we learn to make sense of our world through play and exploration. We mimic and re rehearse the everyday situations we encounter, and revisit our favourite stones in imaginary games, casting ourselves in various roles . It is from these early experiences our brain develops connections, frames of reference, and we develop language patterns. This is not in isolation from our feelings -we learn by the emotional connection that enables us to notice, think, reason and make choices. So, it stands to reason drama strategies are a natural vehicle for enabling the link between concrete experiences to generalised thought.
In our new era, post Covid, the focus on well-being, or emotional capacity has never been more prominent. What we have recognised as essential to this are connectivity, creativity, innovation and connection. These are all key elements of play, of exploration and in developing communication.
In this development of communication, physicality is so important. Our earliest forms of communication involve the whole body-babies may be vocal, but much of their emotion comes from physical connection to voice. As they develop, the expression of language connects with physical and facial gestures. It is only as we learn about the nuances of social expectations we begin to inhibit or suppress these.
Anyone who sings knows the importance of connection to body. The same goes for spoken expression.
Try it now. Say ‘I am amazing’ now try it again, but stand up and put your hands on your hips. Imagine you are someone you admire-or your favourite superhero. Now say it. Connect with that role. Try it again – no-one’s looking (unless you’re on a train-and who knows who may join in!)
The power of connection between physical actions, emotional connection and language can be transformational and enables us to empathize with situations, understand characters and access meaning as well as developing our own emotional awareness.
Engaging with and exploring stories using drama can offer a change to engage with emotional issues in a safe but exploratory environment, inspire ideas and offer a chance to develop emotional capacity to interact with our own ideas and those of others to innovate, to adapt and to create our own stories.
I once described drama strategies as akin to Maths modelling. Words, actually written symbols can be as mystifying as digits- particularly for those children who don’t have experience of context and frames of reference to decipher their meaning from. I am now reminded of a tea towel my Mum had trying to explain the rules of cricket to a non-cricket fan. It comes across as gobbledegook to someone who has no idea of the context or rules.
So for whatever reason, if children have not encountered the vocabulary, or the context before, role play and drama can enable them to access the themes effectively and enable them to emotionally connect in the same ways our early play can. I am reminded of a Maths timetables lesson I was teaching. When I had no responses in relation to how long broken journeys took, I realised none of the children had travelled on public transport. Many of them had not travelled more than 5 miles from home. Cue a train station scenario with chalk in the playground. We had loads of fun and accessed the understanding of how timetables worked. We also devised our own form of a tube station map for homework and planned routes! This also inspired a few model trainset birthday requests.
I’m taking Shakespeare as an example today, mainly because of the work I have done with this within the RSC Associate schools Network and the incredible transformations I have witnessed in all learners, including disaffected learners, learning with SEND and in staff who have reported these strategies revolutionised their teaching across the curriculum. I’m also considering some of you may understand how you may associate with Shakespeare’s language as mystifying, demotivating, or you may even have anxieties relating to your own school experiences of Shakespeare. The fact is, he created so many words, there are bound to be bits we don’t know! However, Shakespeare wrote for everyone, he had diverse audiences and addressed issues of the day by using historical stories. He explored prejudice in many forms and a whole range of emotional journeys. There is something for everyone. His stories are varied and address universal themes, and his rhythms and language link physically with our own heartbeat, so let’s not get too worried about meaning too quickly. No-one is asking you to read the whole text straight off.
That doesn’t mean we can’t reveal the meaning in playing with his words though.
First, we need to warm up – a great place to meet some characters.
Normally, if I was with you in the room I’d connect with all of you, the characters in the room, and play a game in’ a circle where we are all equal, have a chance to play, laugh and feel ok with making mistakes, but here we are and I am laying myself bare, so come and play. This would be a circle game and start off simple, adding in layers of challenge -anyone who’s played Splat, or count to ten in a circle, these are both great options. Something geared towards group co-operation is often a great one. A leveller that creates laughter, connects us physically to our bodies and where it’s Ok to go wrong is the intended outcome. What we’re doing is establishing expectations, creating a safe space and developing relationships. What a great way to start a session in class, even if this is all you are doing-you may even link it to the subject of the lesson…I can think of some great Maths examples.
Let’s explore our characters. If we had the luxury of groups we could move as if exploring a land we had not visited before. As our story is The Tempest and our setting is an island just off the Italian coast, then we need to get a feel for this. You may have already looked at this geographically, or in Art, or Science. It would be a great way to connect with prior learning , but also a way to notice what the children know about islands, beaches and contrasting localities.
Let’s have a go:
You are on the island. You choose where on the island, now walk carefully through this island. ( This is a great opportunity to reinforce adverbs by switching the ways of walking, you may also invite emotional responses or point out facial/physical shaping and explore what this means in relation to the stories they are creating).
Maybe you’re on the beach, walk as if you are walking on sand, imagine how it feels, what sounds you may hear. Now STOP (you might choose to use a sound signal for stop)
I’m going to take some photos. ( You can actually take them or just use your hands to symbolise this)
Now show me:
Miranda: a daughter.
Move again as if you are Miranda, now stop, show me.
Prospero : a father master/servant a powerful magician Duke.
Move again as if you are Prospero, now stop, show me.
Ariel: an airy magical spirit of the island
Move again as if you are Ariel, now stop, show me.
Caliban: a strange creature
Move again as if you are Ariel, now stop, show me.
We will all have used signs and symbols to help us create these freeze frames. You can unpick how it felt to be these characters, how they felt about the island where they live? What they noticed, what sort of characters you think they are.
This could lead into creative character portraits and work around how the characters interact with environment as well a physical appearance.
We’re connecting with context, making links with reference points, with the ability to link with this when we explore plot and relationships. We can share, explore, question in relation to our’ learner’s thoughts and ideas-adding in layers of vocabulary further info where appropriate. Imagine how this could work with any of the texts you use to interact with the creatin of atmosphere. You could even layer in soundtracks for characters, or musical motifs.
I’m going to shift to our focus text for now. We have met the character who says these words – Caliban, show me this character again.
Let me tell you a little more about him.
A long time ago, a witch called Sycorax lived on this island, She ruled the land and the spirits that lived across the island. She only had to raise he magic wand and they would hum, howl and sing. Sycorax had a son: Caliban. He was bent and twisted and ugly. He made strange noises. After Sycorax died, he was alone on the island , free to roam and explore.
What sort of language/voice might he have? what makes you think that?
All the time, you are making connections, engaging and exploring ideas with what the children know and think and what their contextual knowledge is.
What might it feel like to be Caliban? Maybe draw him,
Prospero was banished to the island with his daughter Miranda and made Caliban his servant, He taught Caliban to speak. ( This is a whole other area of enquiry). Here is what he says about his island.
Now let’s see our piece of text –
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. /
Sometimes, a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again:/ and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
Initially I might ask what words stand out after a minute’s glance. I’d then invite everyone to stand and walk, changing direction on punctuation points-not line breaks. Try it now. Try it again. How does it make you feel? What words are speaking to you now?
How do you think Caliban feels about his island? Why? What do we know about this island?
Now you’re creating an island space.
I’ve used / to split the speech into sections. This is where you could invite groups to use noises, body percussion and the words to explore the dynamics of the language. All of this connects with emotional response, empathy, connecting with language and expression of this. Whilst the children are free to explore, it offers opportunities to justify and explain by simply questioning relating to ‘Tell me more about your choice of sound, instrument, or ‘which words make this stand out for you?’
The you can bring everyone together to play the whole piece with the words. By this time they will all have connected and you, you can play an ensemble recitation. Try this a few times, record it, write feedback on what stands out and why- Then open up the chance to walk in the space, or use the recording as a soundtrack.
Using two groups
One group speaks and plays, the other moves in the space, then alternate.
Before any discussion, have them write ideas on separate sheets of paper-descriptions, features, what they felt, heard, noticed on the island.
You can now add in some of the text (courtesy of Miles Tandy from the RSC teaching notes)
Cloud capped towers, Fresh springs, Brine pits, Hard rock, Yellow sands, How lush and lusty the grass looks, Dig thee pine-nuts, A jay’s nest, The murkiest den, Toothed briar, Filthy mantled pool, Cloven pine, Midnight mushroom, Stout oak, Prickling gorse and thorn
Arrange these around the ‘island space! Spend some time playing with and tasting the words. Get the children to repeat them, enunciate them, even clap to them, or gesture-what might they mean? What do we know…what do these words sound like? Here you are playing with meaning and trying things out-no need for dictionaries right now, but you can steer a little. Lusty may be a tricky one, so make your own judgement!
How do you feel about this island? How does Caliban feel about his island?
This could lead to exploration of how we feel about our homes, or into an-in-depth exploration of colonisation and power if we were to advance further into the plot. What we have done is lifted ‘the play’ off the page, brought it to life and connected with language and emotions, while at the same time. developing inference, deduction and comprehension-extending dialogue. We’ve played with the language, and felt it rather than worried about deciphering and defining. But we’ve achieved that along the way, scaffolded and structured by the activity.
We’re now at a place where we can use all of this to enable writing.
We have an island, labelled with ideas. If we add in some of the actual text extracts we can invite partners to tour the island, ideally blindfolded, but at the moment, maybe one speaks, one listens and they can use the written prompts to describe what the island is like.
The vocal rehearsal this brings about may prompt the need to add ideas – or challenge , eg. you use a simile to enhance the atmosphere? How could you describe that sound using adjectives/adverbs? You may even add some examples as the children tour your island. Here we now have a bank of scaffolded prompts that have facilitated developing challenge supported access and not a withdrawal group in sight.
Now is the fun part. You may want a setting description and the children could certainly write a travel blog right now, but maybe you want a poem. Allow them in groups to collect a fixed number of sheets of paper to collect.
Now challenge them to layer, arrange these to perform their poem however they like- layering in sound, instruments, voice however they like to present a poem about their island.
Once you’ve all performed, reflected on, taken feedback on their decisions, there are a multitude of options, but imagine how much more investment this will inspire for further geographical enquiry, what happens, and maybe artistic representation. The children will now they have a hand in the creation and they have lived the language- and it’s Shakespeare!
Shakespeare wrote his plays to be played and experienced, not read. Much of his writing is written in iambic pentameter which mirrors the da dum of our heart beats. If we listen to his rhythms, and where they differ, we can get a sense of emotion, a sense of calm or tension- we just need to be brave enough to play.
I could write for days, and I am busy with a longer book version of this work, but the key points are that when we play with stories and language we empower:
- accessibility for all
- invested connection with language and meaning
- emotional response and opportunities to explore this
- connecting meaning with frames of references, connecting ideas
- enabling reasoning.
- enabling reading and writing
- interaction with challenging and unfamiliar vocabulary in context
What you might not get a sense of here is pace. Exploring playfully can facilitate deep learning at a much quicker pace, and in memorable contexts. The children are empowered to connect at such a level that they commit much of this work to memory easier, and this enhances’ their ability to interact with higher level vocabulary, texts and understanding.
By crafting approaches that involve deep interaction, exploring themes, employing dialogue and sophisticated language and invoking personal responses and reactions, we enable children to making sense of complex situations by proxy. They have been able to access learning the language related to complex relationships and issues and then reflect on what this tells them about themselves and what they know about the world. In other words, the true creation of meaning from experience in which they become the experts, adept at negotiating complex emotions and being able to articulate them as they negotiate with the world.
It’s also tremendous fun, bringing relationships and learning to life. At this point I need to share my favourite quote about stories from John Connolly’s Book of Lost Things:
“Stories were different, though: they came alive in the telling… They were like seeds in’ the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. Once someone began to read them they could begin to change.”
Stories change us, and depending on our cultural background, we alter the nuances of meaning in our interaction with them. Goodness, each time I come back to one of Shakespeare’s stories, I notice something new! We all make sense of our lives through the stories we tell ourselves and others, so it follows that stories and language are the key to enabling our learners to understand their own world.
Stories ignite imaginations, play is the expression of this. Why do we relegate, or limit play to our youngest of learners when making sense of meaning gets harder? In order to create our own stories, we need to be able to play with the ideas. Let’s release our inner playwrites, let’s rewrite the script in our classrooms and get creating our worlds, our stages.