Drama reinforces child development
31st August 2009
A group of 20 young children sit excitedly in a circle listening attentively as the next fun-filled activity is explained to them. Sitting cross-legged among the children is actor Alan Montanaro, principal of the Malta branch of the Helen O'Grady Academy, giving one of the best-managed and educative lessons I have seen in a long time.
In the middle of the circle is the 'magic cloak' (actually a swatch of unhemmed sequinned cloth). The children, including their teacher, take turns to give the cloak a new identity, and then act it out - while the rest of the class guess what the new identity is.
Matthew rolls it up and turns it into a football. Emma turns it into Harry Potter's disappearing cloak, while Sarah becomes a fairy. They're using their imagination. They're also learning how to listen and observe attentively. They're learning how to frame questions properly. And although they think it's just a game, their teacher is carefully extending their vocabulary.
They say that 'a lesson learned through fun is never forgotten' and this certainly seems to be the aim of the game as the children are taken through a myriad of games and exercises; they are great fun for the children, but an observing mind will instantly recognise that a lot of thought goes on behind the various activities.
"Helen O'Grady Academy's dynamic development programme has been built over the years by teachers, psychologists and parents to ensure that the lessons are structured to bring out the best of any child", Montanaro explained before moving on to organise the next part of the lesson: improvisation.
The giggling children rush to the middle of the room as, in their mind, the class is instantly transformed into a pond and the children jump over imaginary stepping stones for a bit of frog-spotting, until, at the sound of the tambourine... they all slip into the water and are encouraged to react vocally as they help each other out of the murky pool.
"Group activities are extremely useful for easing the more reticent or shy child out of their shells. Everyone participates without imposing any unwanted attention on any individual child," explained Montanaro as he moves on to the next segment of the lesson: speech.
The children walk around and freeze to the sound of the tambourine. This is their 'speech position'. After some fun vocal exercises which had some of the children (and me) in stitches, the children are asked to recite simple, yet carefully thought-out lines and poems that stress certain consonants or vowels. These are then put into use during the main part of the lesson: the play.
"A different play is put up each and every week. This ensures that every child gets their chance to shine and eliminates the pressure of studying lines and the tedium of waiting around that is required when rehearsing for one show.
Often the plays themselves deal with subjects that are important to the children of various ages, for instance, bullying," explains Montanaro. This week the play takes place in Shakespearean times, and the children call Montanaro back into their midst to block The Prince and the Wedding Ring Thief.
The Helen O'Grady Academy is not a talent school and is not in the business of turning children into performing artistes. It is a very unique development programme designed to improve children's English language skills, ease them out of their shells in a fun-filled environment, while tapping into children's inherent imagination which is, unfortunately, being consumed by technology.
Studies carried out by Matt Buchanan of Harvard University show that drama reinforces the rest of the school curriculum. Since communication and empathy are central to drama, a student will be better able to understand and discuss problems. The link between dramatic arts and subjects such as English, History, Social Studies, and related areas is obvious.
The study of literature would be impossible without drama. One marked area of improvement noted by parents of children attending the Helen O'Grady Academy was in spoken English, as the children are taken out of the blackboard and classroom environment and work the language itself.
And, because drama is so practical, one can adopt the wisdom of Aristotle: "Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I will remember. Involve me... and I will understand."
Classes cover speech, movement, creative drama, language development and studio productions but, above all, lessons are great fun, and the children look forward to their weekly lessons. For the convenience of parents, classes are held in different locations around the island.
There are no end-of-term examinations; children have enough academic pressure as it is. There are no large-scale productions at the end of the year because the jam-packed curriculum does not allow for long hours of rehearsals for one show. Parents are, however, invited to attend a specially designed lesson towards the end of the year to monitor and witness, first-hand, the development of their children.
(Sunday Times, 31st August 2008, Jo Caruana)