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How can young children learn through a structured play?

Structured play can impact a children's development in myriad ways, helping them to develop basic skills upon which they can build as they continue to progress. This is particularly true in the early stages. In Key Stage 1, which lasts approximately from the ages of five thru seven.

During this stage there are a number of structured play activities that introduce young people to concepts they will carry through life. Simple physical games that encourage movementsuch as running around, musical statues, or mimicking anotherhelp develop their skills of concentration as well as improve their spacial coordination.

More complex physical games, such as tag, not only help improve physical coordination, they also help children to learn to how to follow rules and how to behave in the course of play. Children are exposed to the concept of fair play and learn the importance of playing by the rules and the consequences that may happen when they do not. Thus they can establish, early on, a code of conduct for interacting with others which they can build on in the future.

In addition, there are a number of word and puzzle games which help promote literacy and improve cognitive function. There are also games designed to help improve concentration and memory skills, still others which help to build confidence and trust. These games may employ different types of stimuli, such as music, pictures, or stories; any or all of these can be used within the context of the game to enrich the experience. The goal which these games share is to positively impact the child's cognitive, emotional and social development.

Thus, structured play is an important aspect of education at this stage of development. It promotes, among other thingsself-confidence, self-reliance, communication skills, physical coordination, conflict-solvingand therefore plays a crucial role in a child's early years. Drama, it will be argued, may be used to introduce and build on the same skills that structured play doesand more. Drama in the school curriculum may offer a broader range of skills for potential development. The rest of this paper will address the ways in which implementation of drama into the curriculum complements the educational experience while satisfying requirements for Key Stage 1.

But first, how do we define drama in the curriculum? Does it mean acting in plays? Learning to understand certain issues through understanding different plays? Or does it refer to less formal, more spontaneous acting exercises and games?

Michael Fleming opens his book Teaching Drama in Primary and Secondary Schools by describing two different drama lessons being taught in two neighborhood schools. He explains that each lesson is very different from the other: one is placing more emphasis on form, the other on content (2001:11). Which one is better? Is one better than the other?

Not necessarily, explains Fleming. The theory of drama and the way it is implemented may vary widely from one curriculum to the next. Fleming points out that it is not necessary to seek for one single definition of ‘drama' which can be applied to all cases nor to assume that a term can be used to mean whatever one wants it to mean (2001:129).

A number of writers on the topic of drama in education seem to agree with this statement: drama refuses to be easily defined or restricted. Much is left to the discretion of the teacher, and, as Gavin Bolton points out: The good teacher, recognizing that any instance of acting is open to abuse and overuse, will tend to favour a wide range of acting behaviours (1998:249).

Furthermore, as Bolton points out, differences in such features as quality, style, or spontaneity will vary from classroom to classroom and from stage to stage (1998:276). What works well in one classroom setting may not be as effective in another.

It is enlightening to explore the various ways in which drama, in all its forms, has been a valuable addition to the classroom. It helps initially to point out the very natural connection between drama and play in this educational context: drama has its origin in the dramatic play of the young child (Fleming 2001:77). As such it may be viewed as a natural progression in a child's development.

This is a crucial point in education: introducing tasks prematurely will often have negative results. Not only is it likely that the child will fail to successfully grasp the taskthe frustration of failure may affect self-esteem, undermine self-confidence, or adversely affect the outcome of future tasks, among other things.

As Fleming and others have pointed out, the introduction of drama in the curriculum is not intended to artificially hasten the child's natural development, but rather to enhance it as it progresses at a natural pace. Since not all children develop at identical rates, this can often present a challenge in the classroom.
Here, again, Fleming underscores the elusive nature of drama teaching, explaining that it does not sit easily within orderly schemes of progression and assessment but neither can it exist outside the prevailing norms and expectations in education (2001:148).

Concerning prevailing norms and expectations, it should be pointed out here that the addition of drama to the curriculum certainly meets, perhaps exceeds, the curriculum requirements for Key Stage 1. It is similar to structured play in that it satisfies both statutory goals (speaking, listening, reading and writing) and non-statutory goals (PHSE: personal, health and social education). However, it may be argued that, unlike structured play, drama strives to go a step beyond.

The positive impact of drama is as varied and far-reaching as the many definitions of drama itself. But before exploring these, it is important to look at drama from an economic, or budgetary consideration. While most people are in support of bringing performing arts into the classroom, when it comes to budgetary considerations, these are often the first to go when funds are limited.

This need not be so. Take, for example, the persuasive and enthusiastic argument put forth by Nellie McCaslin in Creative drama in the classroom and beyond. In addition to citing the many possible benefits of including creative drama in schools, she drives her point home by noting its economic feasibility: creative drama needs no special equipment, no studio, and no stage; time, space, and an enthusiastic, well-prepared leader are the only requirements (2006:4).

After considering all the benefits and weighing them with the financial expenditure, McCaslin then concludes that the theatre arts are the least expensive of the arts to implement, with the greatest potential for learning (2006:5).

Alison Chaplin is another author who has written much on the benefits of drama in education. One of her many roles is that of director of Arts On the Move, which consists of specialists in drama and theatre courses, and from which she derives a variety of experiences and perspectives. Chaplin sees drama as an optimal experience for young children. She points out that at Key Stage 1, it is invaluable as a means for developing communication skills, encouraging positive social interaction, increasing physical control and teaching children how to listen and respond appropriately.

Chaplin even suggests bringing Shakespeare into primary education. This may sound daunting, even impossible, to many adults. However, by breaking Shakespeare's works down into some basic universal themes, Chaplin puts forth a plausible theory.

In addition, she offers specific plays, exercises, and suggestions to assist the teacher in successfully introducing Shakespeare into the curriculum. All of these are designed to be age-appropriate, so that children will not be overwhelmed or negatively impacted by tasks for which they are not yet prepared.

There may be many adults, professional educators as well as parents, who will oppose the idea of age-appropriate Shakespeare for Key Stage 1 students. Part of their opposition may rest on their own educational experiences with Shakespeare. Many primary teachers themselves remember struggling with the plays at secondary school notes Chaplin (October 2002).

Introducing such playwrights as Shakespeare to children in Key Stage 1, when they are so easily impressionable, is an extremely interesting concept and may have lasting implications on future generations. Many young people dread such required readings as they advance academically, often picking up on subliminal cues from parents and other adults. Perhaps instead they will associate Shakespeare (and others) with the positive experiences of their primary years. Instead of groaning, they will welcome the opportunity to become reacquainted with these rich, multi-layered works on new and deeper levels.

When we realize that much of Shakespeare revolves around conflict, introducing a simplified, accessible version to young children may seem, in fact, quite natural. More broadly speaking, much of drama itself is about conflict.

Offering creative approaches to conflict resolution is another potential benefit of including drama in the curriculum. O'Toole and Burton point out that drama is the art form which most explicitly mirrors and explicates human conflict. Conflict is part of the basic business of drama, which exists to depict and explore human relationships (2002).

Learning to resolve conflicts is of vital importance throughout life, but particularly during the early developmental years. Lessons assimilated during these years often stay with us through life. Exposure to a range of conflicts, as well as the ways in which those conflicts are resolved, may be an extremely valuable tool for children.

This is not to suggest that implementing drama into the curriculum is the same thing as offering templates in conflict resolution. Not all dramatic conflicts have happy or positive resolutionsin fact, many do not. This is part of the power of drama, and why it impacts people strongly at any age. But by introducing dramatic conflict, teachers can introduce questions about resolution. They can also encourage children to reflect on their own reactions, and to participate in class discussions about ways in which to approach and resolve conflicts in their own lives.