By Zelia Maree
The reality, however, is very different. “Dramatic play is our brain’s favourite way of learning.” (Ackerman, 2017). Nothing brightens up a child’s brain like dramatic play. The people who continuously echo the words above are often unaware of the fact that dramatic play is how the brain best engages and learns.
Blessings Dinake, a young man from Hammanskraal, now an aeronautical engineer, was also a student who heard those words. Being an ‘A’ student all his life, he decided to choose Drama as an additional subject. He was looking for a new and different challenge.
In Blessings’ own words:
The moment I chose Drama was the moment my life changed. The skills I developed while engaging in Drama changed my life, and to me, that’s what matters most.
I was invited, along with 24 other individuals, to be interviewed for a bursary to study engineering at one of the most exclusive universities in America, an opportunity that only comes by once. The skills I developed in Drama class made me a well-rounded person. It taught me to be aware of the things and the people around me. I can quickly scan their body language, facial expressions, and energy and know how they are feeling. It gave me the confidence to analyse any person or situation accurately and initiate different ways to resolve a problem. At the end of the week of interviews, trials and tribulations, I received the bursary to go and study engineering.
The core skills the universities were looking for in prospective recipients were communications skills (verbal, written and listening), analytical skills, adaptability and flexibility, interpersonal relationship skills, leadership/management skills, multicultural sensitivity/awareness, planning/organising, problem-solving, reasoning, creativity, and lastly teamwork. In retrospect, Drama entailed all of the above.
I am an engineer but have Drama to thank for it.
Have you ever taken the time to witness a child’s imagination at work? Have you just stood and observed as intuitive creative play unfolds, without any coaching or influence from you? Children from all cultures are born with the ability to create a make-believe world, one where they can feel safe and loved, using dramatic play. The brain is wired to learn in this way and to use imaginary worlds to practice life skills, to make sense and meaning of the world around them, and to figure out a unique way to handle the world they are a part of.
Children at play are in their most natural and happiest state. Personalities and characters, problem-solving and confidence develop. This assists children to make sense of the world around them through acting and re-enacting real and imagined experiences. As an added bonus, a child communicates his imagination and playful experiences in ways he is unable to do verbally.
Children’s dramatic play stimulates and uses many different parts of the brain, just as Drama does. Dramatic play simultaneously excites visual, auditory, spatial and motor functions. This links neurons as well as making and strengthening neural pathways in preparation for development and learning.
Dramatic play prepares the brain of a child for development in four major areas.
Physical development explores the functions and capabilities of the body.
Drama is sometimes physical and is a great way for children to be active and develop their motor skills. Gross motor skills are developed when “firefighters” climb up ladders and “policemen” chase after thieves over the different playground equipment.
Fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination are seen when coins are dished up to pay at the shop or pretending to make recipes on a live show and having to fetch and make the food.
Dramatic play also regulates behavior. Allowing children to play physically helps them to learn self-regulation and to understand when a certain type of behaviour is appropriate and when it is not.
Dramatic play teaches children about feelings, their own feelings and those of other people. It allows children to experience and express both positive and negative feelings. There is nothing more freeing than this emotional exploration. Drama greatly benefits children in developing their self-esteem and self-awareness. There is a sense of freedom which flows from the realisation that you can be anything by just pretending. Children love this! It’s a safe and secure way to experiment, test boundaries and build confidence.
Behaving like other people through imitating their behavior, children have the opportunity essentially to experiment with the different social roles of life. They learn who they are as individuals. They explore how they fit into the world around them, where other people come into the picture and how to associate with someone different from themselves. Empathy, as well as cooperation with others, is developed. They can associate and respond positively toward people’s feelings.
All young children have moments of selfishness and this is normal. It’s all about survival! With maturity, and opportunities for experimental pretend play, children begin to recognise and learn how to respond positively toward other people’s feelings. Think of a role-play situation where children are playing together. They will have to agree on a topic and negotiate roles and rules. All of this requires cooperation, collaboration and an understanding of others.
Children who participate in pretend play activities involving role-play are better able to display empathy because they have effectively experimented with emotions and an opportunity to stand in someone else’s shoes. Since they’re trying on new roles, they have less fear of new situations.
According to McQuiness (1999), Drama presents children with a variety of different problems to solve and scenarios to think about carefully. They need to plan, review, decide on and evaluate the consequences. They need to plan which role to take on, how to solve the problem presented and then what to do. Participating in drama in this way requires a child to call upon cognitive thinking skills that they will find themselves using in all aspects of everyday life. These skills will stay with them all the way through to adulthood.
Memories are formed and reinforced through drama and imagination. Drama is often the repetition of life events. Children make use of images that they have created in their minds to recreate past experiences during the subject of Drama. This form of abstract thinking helps them to work out what has happened in any acted-out scenario, and to learn how to gather and manage their thoughts and reactions to such a scenario. They also learn how to mentally solve problems that they may already have encountered. This leads to them overcoming difficulties they may face in the future.
And as if all that isn’t enough, dramatic play is fun too! When letting their imagination take over while playing together there are no limits as to where their minds can take them. There is no chance of running out of things to enjoy and talk about! The world becomes a place of infinite possibilities.
Dramatic play engineers learning experiences that put children in the driver seat of their own imaginations and abilities. Keeping Drama in mind, real learning for life takes place in an imagined world that prepares children for the future (McQuiness, 1999).
In dramatic play children develop their receptive and expressive language skills (listening and speaking), expand capacity for imagining, imitate life around them (being a mommy, fix a meal, etc.), build their attention and engagement capacity, develop important abstract thinking skills, practice problem solving skills and build a working vocabulary.
Mind Moves (De Jager, 2020) is a movement programme that can be utilised on a daily basis to build neurological networks and improve the above skills mentioned. The following Mind Moves exercises would be recommended to help the child:
Pucker up the lips and hold for a count of eight. Say “cooeee”, pull the lips into a wide smile while stretching the “eee” sound to the count of eight.
This move improves muscle tone in and around the lips for clear pronunciation.
Open the mouth wide by dropping the jaw, feeling the jaw joint just above the molars and all the way up in line with the ears. Gently massage the joint to loosen tension.
This move promotes receptive and expressive language (both verbal and written).
Fling the arms wide open while breathing in deeply and slowly. Close the arms over the chest in a hug, breathe out deeply and slowly.
This move boosts relaxation, rhythmic breathing and a sense of wellbeing.
In conclusion I want to refer to Blessing’s words: “I am an engineer but have Drama to thank for it.” The importance of Drama as subject, can never be underestimated.
De Jager, M. 2009. Mind Moves—moves that mend the mind. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute
McGuiness, C. 1999. From Thinking Skills to Thinking Classroom: a review and evaluation of approaches for developing pupils ‘thinking. Research Report No 115, DfEE
National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education. 1999. All our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education, DfEE