State College Friends School teachers, students deep in drama

State College Friends students dress as butterflies for a performance at the school.
State College Friends students dress as butterflies for a performance at the school. Photo provided

Editor’s note: The following story appeared in the May Family Pages section.

You know it’s play season at State College Friends School when flattened refrigerator boxes, billows of nylon tulle and a variety of tails and wigs line the hallways outside classrooms. The long-standing Friends School tradition of class plays takes teachers and students deep into drama, from research, scriptwriting, music composition, costuming and prop-building to performing. For three to four weeks every year, kindergarten through middle school teachers devote a significant portion of their instructional time to creating, producing and performing class plays.

With the more than 30 years of experience of Friends School teachers who have been engaged deeply with children and drama, the list of academic, social and emotional benefits could fill volumes.

“The cognitive and academic learning that happens when doing drama is easy to recognize,” said longtime kindergarten and first-grade teacher Dorothy Habecker. “Doing a play is rife with opportunities for the children to practice reading with expression, to discuss character development and plot, to learn new vocabulary words, and to promote reading comprehension and interpretive reading of text.”

Throughout the years, teachers and parents of students in all grades at Friends have echoed those observations, adding their own lists of positive outcomes from incorporating drama into the curriculum. Some talk about drama as a motivating factor for children who are struggling to read or as a way to help socially anxious children become more confident.

The opportunities for creativity in planning and performing a play are equally apparent. Children become enthusiastically engaged in creating props and costumes, building and painting scenery and frequently writing scripts and music. Performing a play “sets the stage” for children to extend their imaginations and tap into talents and thinking that typically aren’t used in reading and writing lessons.

In addition, since plays are a collaborative activity, they create space for social skill development and conflict management. Teachers intentionally include children not just in the writing and development of each play but in the casting as well. This is an authentic opportunity for children to listen to each other’s ideas, voice their opinions and be part of a group decision-making process. And it’s an opportunity to practice a unique set of problem-solving skills certainly not used in math.

It doesn’t always go smoothly, and of course, that’s where the rich learning possibilities exist.

One of the areas where Friends School is especially strong is our commitment to helping children get comfortable in front of audiences. Children begin right away in kindergarten with their first Thankful Tuesday presentation — usually a simple poem or song. By the time students have participated in their last class play in eighth grade, they all — not just a select few — have repeatedly spoken in front of crowds. We often hear parents and high school teachers of our middle school graduates remark on the presence and confidence of these students. This is no accident, but rather a result of years of habit and practice in performing in front of appreciative audiences.

Performing in a school play is a chance for children to stretch emotionally in ways that do not always present themselves in day-to-day school life. Children are expected to project their voices, both literally and figuratively. It is a safe opportunity to voice that unique person that you are, because you are pretending to be someone else. Theater gives each child a chance to try different roles and to break out of the roles he or she plays every day. A shy, quiet child can play the part of a big, bad wolf or a swash-buckling pirate. A child who struggles with behavior and following rules will often volunteer to play a peacemaker or gentle animal.

The experience of creativity, collaboration and personal growth found through drama at Friends School is a “rehearsal for the deep drama of life,” and it’s one we celebrate with full applause!

Lori Pacchioli is director of advancement at State College Friends School.

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