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Drama and the Literary Arts

Children are natural dramatists, and activities that fuel their imagination and ability to make believe foster creative and academic skills. Inspired by a painting of Lewis and Clark, 3rd graders in Louisville take on roles of explorers and Native Americans; mother and neuroscientist Lise Eliot explains the connection between reading and brain development; teaching artists Kofi Dennis and Ingrid Crepeau use books and puppets to help children bring stories to life in the classroom; and children at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center in Washington, DC use artifacts, storytelling, and dramatic play to connect ideas in science and history.

In the Program

  • The subtext strategy
    3rd graders in Louisville “walk in the shoes” of explorers Lewis and Clark and Native Americans who encountered the explorers, using a painting as inspiration to imagine and act.
  • Key points
    Educators offer reasons why drama activities are important for young children.
  • The reading-brain connection
    Neuroscientist Lise Eliot discusses the importance of reading to brain development in young children.
  • Bringing books to life
    Wolf Trap teaching artist Kofi Dennis uses music and movement to bring Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar to life in a Head Start kindergarten classroom.
  • About Wolf Trap
    Wolf Trap teaching artist Ingrid Crepeau helps students at the Community Academy Public Charter School in Washington, DC explore Eve Bunting’s book Ducky using puppets.
  • Object-based learning
    Kindergarten students at the Smithsonian Institution’s Early Enrichment Center use themed explorations to delve into story writing, storytelling, science, music, and art.
  • Drama basics and terms
  • Storytelling with young children

Drama and the Literary Arts (Video)

Inspired by a painting, 3rd graders in Louisville take on roles of explorers and Native Americans. Mother and neuroscientist Lise Eliot explains the connection between reading and brain development, and teaching artists use books and puppets to help children bring stories to life in the classroom. At the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, kids use artifacts, storytelling, and dramatic play to connect ideas in science and history.

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The Subtext Strategy


The “subtext strategy” shown in Program 5 of Art to Heart—in which 3rd graders are asked to imagine what the people portrayed in a painting are thinking—illustrates the power of the arts as a tool for thinking, says University of Louisville professor of literacy education Jean Anne Clyde.

“Thinking like an artist, thinking like a musician, a dramatist, changes the way you can see the world. The things that we all remember and understand best in our lives are the things we’ve lived. So that’s what I try to do in teaching—give students opportunities to step into a character’s world, into the story.”

A Matter of Perspective

Clyde and a group of Louisville teachers, including Byck Elementary’s Laura Wasz, whose class is featured in Art to Heart, have explored the use of the “subtext strategy” in the classroom. “Subtext involves asking children to assume different perspectives,” Wasz says. The strategy can be used with a painting, an illustration in a book, a story, or even children’s own work, Wasz says. “When they write something and then draw about it or draw it first, then we ask them, ‘OK, what is your character thinking?’ Then they have to think again and go underneath what’s on the surface and think even more deeply about it.”

In the classroom, the subtext activities become a bridge not only to deeper thinking but to writing. After they imagine what the characters are thinking, “we ask them to begin writing scripts. They’re going to have to take the experience and make a play out of the thoughts of these people.”

Young children adapt easily to the subtext technique, Wasz says. Bridging from arts to writing starts with something children already understand and guides them to the challenge of written language. “If they can sing it, if they can dance it, they’re going to understand it so much better than if you just start pouring words at them. The written language is the last step in literacy. The arts are such a native language to children. For every type of education, there is a way to use the arts to connect children to what they’re trying to learn.”

For More Information

Clyde and Wasz are co-authors (along with Shelli Barber and Sandra Hogue) of the book Breakthrough to Meaning: Helping Your Kids Become Better Readers, Writers, and Thinkers, which includes the subtext strategy and other techniques.

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Key Points

Why Are Drama Activities Important


“All children play-act as part of their development, so it’s a very, very natural process to them; they’ve known drama since birth. They’re so adept at reading people’s postures, people’s gestures. It’s necessary for survival, so children are automatic dramatists.”

Laura Wasz, teacher, Byck Elementary

“It’s multidiscipline—you know, you have the language acquisition, then the movement, fine motor, locomotor—things like that. And those are all things they need in order to develop.”

Ntaka Wellington, preschool teacher, Community Academy Public Charter School

“It’s very important to talk to babies, to sing to babies, to read to babies, from a very, very early age. The sheer number of words that children are exposed to in early life actually determines or influences their own verbal intelligence and performance in language arts classes in school.”

Lise Eliot, professor of neuroscience, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science

“We find over and over again that children who have had quality arts education do well in school. They make the kinds of connections that cross curriculum areas. Learning isn’t in silos; it connects in a lot of different ways, and the arts are one way to help children make those connections and understand the world as something other than just subject matter.”

Miriam Flaherty, senior director of education, Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts

“You can incorporate the arts into any subject—the children are going to learn more. And anybody who cuts art out—shame on them! They just do not understand children, they don’t understand education, and I would fire them all.”

Ingrid Crepeau, teaching artist, Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts

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The Reading Brain Connection

The Power of Reading


What’s the best tool to teach literacy? “Just reading to your child,” says Lise Eliot, assistant professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. The number of words children are exposed to in early life actually determines their own verbal intelligence and affects performance in language art classes when children get to school, Eliot says.

Another great thing about books is that they “take you out of your daily world into another one, another vocabulary. It allows children to visualize,” Eliot says. “And finally, there is some evidence that simply being read to helps children acquire all the pre-literacy skills such as understanding that text goes from left to right, understanding that there is a break between words, and starting to recognize their ABCs,” Eliot says. All this is critical to the transition to independent reading, “and the earlier children are read to, the easier their transition to reading themselves.”

Download the Art to Heart Reading Primer for Parents (PDF format) for tips on how to make reading a part of your own and your child’s daily lives.

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Bringing Books to Life


In Program 5 of Art to Heart, Kofi Dennis and Ingrid Crepeau, teaching artists with the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, help students and teachers bring stories to life in the preschool classroom. Their activities vary widely—Dennis, who is from Mali, uses African drums, rhythm, and movement, while Crepeau uses puppets—but their goal is the same: learning.

The children are gaining important pre-literacy skills. They listen as the books are read to them. They “read” the illustrations. They learn about sequence. “Children can’t learn to read if they can’t remember first, second, third,” Crepeau says. They’re learning other curriculum concepts teachers and artists discussed in advance—from colors to prepositions to weather. They use their imaginations to go more deeply into the story. “We help them to focus, to draw from the book, to take the world of the book and bring it into the classroom,” Dennis says.

And they’re having fun—and that itself is important to learning. “We know so much more about how the brain works and how these early years are so developmentally important—that the thing to do is to find the best way to stimulate those little brains,” Crepeau says. “And if you can engage their emotions, they’re having fun, they’re laughing, they remember more. If you can engage them physically, it stimulates other parts of the brain. They remember more.”

Find Out More

Ingrid Crepeau, who is featured in Art to Heart, is the co-author, along with M. Ann Richards, of the book A Show of Hands: Using Puppets with Young Children. It explains how the use of puppets can support emergent literacy skills, introduce children’s literature, manage the classroom, and assist in the development of lesson plans.

For more information, visit the Show of Hands web site.

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About Wolf Trap

Wolf Trap Early Learning

Kofi Dennis and Ingrid Crepeau are among about 200 professional teaching artists who work with schools as part of the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts.

This acclaimed program, based at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia, works with regional organizations across the United States to provide arts-in-education services for children ages 3-5, as well as their parents and teachers, through drama, music, and movement.

The Arts for Teaching

Wolf Trap’s early childhood program began in 1981. “Education has always been central to Wolf Trap’s mission,” explains Miriam Flaherty, senior director of education. “But in 1981, someone from Head Start approached one of our board members. Head Start was really looking at opportunities to have an impact on how teachers teach. And they wondered if the arts could be part of a teacher’s professional development program and if the arts could really be used to help young children learn.”

A quarter-century later, the program continues to grow and thrive. “I believe the success is because it’s about a partnership—a meaningful partnership between artists and teachers,” Flaherty says. “It comes down to where the children are in the classroom, what the teacher’s goals and objectives are for the children. The artist isn’t going in and doing a set performance. And the children aren’t audience members. They’re all participants together.”

Teacher Karen Bump, who worked with Dennis in her classroom at Belvedere Elementary, agrees. “When Mr. Kofi came into our classroom—he would come in two or three times a week—the children were so excited to see him. And I was just as excited because I knew we were going to have a good time and we were going to learn some new things and learn some new ways of learning. Joyful, active learning is what happens when you have a Wolf Trap artist in the classroom.”

Find Out More

The Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts offers residencies and other programs in the Washington, DC/Maryland/Virginia region as well as through regional programs in Arizona, Southern California, Chicago, Connecticut, Delaware, the Mississippi Delta, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nashville, New Jersey, New York City, North Carolina, Rochester, and North Texas.

The Wolf Trap Foundation web site has more information about the institute and contact information for regional programs.

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Object-Based Learning


In the activity shown in Program 5 of Art to Heart, Joshua Beasley, kindergarten enrichment teacher at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, connects a wide variety of artifacts from the Smithsonian to guided activities to provide children with a rich and exciting exploration of science, music, art, and art-making.

Each month, students at the center embark on a theme-based study of an artist. The activity shown was a study of Antonio Stradivari, the Italian violin maker of the late 1600s and early 1700s, framed with the themes of science, music, and nature.

“We try and connect through simple ideas, the way that we frame it,” explains Beasley. “We’re looking for ways that a story might remind you of a work of art and how that work of art might remind you of an idea in science.” For example, in learning about violin music and Stradivari, Beasley used a picture of an old violin from the National Gallery.

Questions and Explorations

In researching Stradivari, Beasley learned that he had lived during what was termed the “little ice age.” The children were curious about this: Did Stradivari ever meet a woolly mammoth or saber-toothed tiger? Beasley asked a scientist to bring in mammoth fur and objects from the time in which the woolly mammoth and saber-toothed tiger lived. The children learned that these animals were gone by the time of Stradivari, but wolves were still around. “And once they had the thread, they connected the picture and the art and the science idea. That’s when we made up a story about violins and wolves.”

Throughout the month, the class told the story differently. It began as a very brief, spontaneous story made up during a visit to the Natural History Museum. As the month went on, the children elaborated on it and acted out different parts. They brought in articles and information about violins. They learned about the kind of wood used to make violins. They also took a virtual tour of the “Forest of the Violins,” a real place in Italy that Beasley discovered in doing research on Stradivari. And each child was encouraged to explore further an aspect he or she was especially curious about.

A Leader in Object-Based Learning

The Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center is recognized as a leader in this kind of object-based learning. The center was founded to create a model of museum-based learning for young children as well as to provide on-site care for the children of Smithsonian employees. “In 1988, there were very few, if any, programs for preschoolers in traditional museums,” notes Sharon Shaffer, the center’s executive director. “The idea was to use the rich resources here in the Smithsonian complex. But no one was quite sure how that fit with preschoolers because preschoolers were not viewed as part of the museum audience at that time.”

What the educators at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center discovered was that using art and artifacts could be an extremely successful approach if grounded in an understanding of young children and how they learn: making it interactive, connecting it with the children’s own prior experiences, and letting them express their ideas.

Find Out More

The Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center shares what it has learned about museum-based and object-based education for young children through outreach programs for educators. Two training seminars are offered: “Learning Through Objects” and “Museum Magic: Using Museums To Teach History, Literacy, and Math.” The center also offers teaching kits. The web site has information about training seminars and resources available, including a downloadable article by Sharon Shaffer on “Looking at Art with Toddlers.”

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Drama Basics and Terms


Children of all ages love to pretend. Even toddlers mimic things and people they see around them. Storytelling, role playing, mimicry, pantomime, and acting out a written play—all are part of drama, an activity well suited to children in the early years of life.

Elements of Drama

Drama includes literary elements, technical elements, and performance elements.

Literary elements have to do with the plot. They include:

  • storyline—what happens in the story or play.
  • story organization—the beginning, middle, and end.
  • character—who is in the story.
  • script—a story written in the form of dialogue and directions for movement.

Technical elements help a dramatic performance come to life. They include scenery, costumes, props, and makeup. A dramatic performance may include very minimal technical elements—many storytellers, for example, use no scenery, props, costumes, or makeup. Other performances may have very elaborate scenery, costumes, makeup, and props.

Performance elements relate to how a performer uses speech, movement, and gestures to create characters and tell the story.

Exploring the Elements of Drama

  • Encourage children to play and be imaginative.
  • Read a variety of stories to your child. Have fun with the reading; use different voices and movement. With toddlers and older children, encourage them to move like characters. As language ability develops, encourage children to make up their own endings or stories.
  • Even very young children engage in dramatic play in nearly any setting. Provide opportunities. For example, as you cook, give your toddler or preschooler a wooden spoon and plastic bowl so he or she can pretend to cook as well.
  • Provide props and dress-up items—hats, scarves, jewelry, old clothing.
  • With younger children, focus on creative dramatics and creative movement—pantomime, body gestures, moving to music, pretending to be animals or machines.
  • As children’s language ability develops, books and stories are a natural tie-in to drama. Encourage your child to pretend to be a character in a storybook. Act out the story together. Ask your child to retell the story to you—or to a favorite toy.
  • Provide puppets for your child to play with. These can be simple stick or paper-bag puppets.
  • Look for opportunities for your child to attend age-appropriate performances. Storytelling sessions at the local library can be a good place to start. Local children’s theater companies usually do a variety of plays for a variety of ages. Afterward, discuss the elements. What was the story? Did the child learn something? Was it funny or sad? Were there costumes and props? What did they add to the performance? How did the storyteller or actors move and talk? Did the child like the performance?

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Storytelling With Young Children


“Stories have been a part of almost every culture in the world. And why? Because they worked. It’s a way of passing on your culture,” says Rebecca Isbell, director of the Center of Excellence in Early Childhood Learning and Development and professor of early childhood education at East Tennessee State University. “Storytelling is a very powerful technique.”

What are some of the benefits to children of hearing stories told to them in early childhood?

The time from birth to age 8 is a critical time for oral language development, Isbell notes. Storytelling also develops visual imagery skills, as children must visualize what they are hearing as opposed to looking at illustrations in a book. Stories are also wonderful ways to learn about different cultures and people and to introduce moral and social issues.

Memory and Understanding

Isbell has been interested in storytelling throughout her career—she did her college dissertation on the effect of storytelling on young children’s language development. The Child Study Center also did a research study comparing the effects of story reading and storytelling on the intellectual development of children. “We found that children who heard stories told to them, without a book, with the eye-to-eye contact of the storyteller, that the children remembered those stories better than the ones they heard read; that they were actually able to internalize the pictures, create the stories for themselves in their heads, and remember the sequence of events much better than when they were read the story using a picture book where they focused on the pictures in the book.

“We also found that they had a better understanding of what the story was about; for instance, the moral of the story,” Isbell said. “They could tell you more about what the moral was than when they had a story told to them. So it’s a really fascinating area to look at and one that I think we need to study more and use more as teachers.”

Find Out More

  • Rebecca Isbell has written several books on storytelling for young children. She is also co-author, with Shirley C. Raines, of Creativity and the Arts with Young Children, which has ideas and information relating to all the arts disciplines. Her Dr. Isbell web site has information about her books along with activity ideas and links.
  • The International Storytelling Center web site has a variety of information and resources about storytelling, including information about the National Storytelling Festival held each year in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

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Other Programs in this Series

Why are arts experiences important in the early years of life? How do music, dance, drama, and visual art contribute to growth and learning? How can parents and educators foster young children’s creativity?

Art to Heart is an eight-part KET production that explores the importance of visual arts, music, dance, drama, and literature in the lives of infants, toddlers, and young children, providing useful ideas and information for parents, caregivers, and early childhood teachers.

Visit the Art to Heart Collection

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