by Summer Jeavons
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
During the past few years countless children have missed out on trips to the theatre – whether with their family or on school trips – due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many things have changed during that time, but can we afford to let children and young people miss out on the experience of seeing live theatre? Dr Natasha Kirkham, a professor in Developmental Psychology at Birkbeck University doesn’t think so. She conducted a study in 2017 which that found taking children to see theatre can significantly positively affect their academic performance as well as allowing them to develop their social, emotional and cognitive skills.
In terms of the benefits of theatre on academic achievement and comprehension of set texts, seeing a play live in the theatre rather than on a screen has been found to improve children’s academic performance and engagement with set texts, as well as allowing them to achieve a deeper understanding and appreciation of the material. A two-year study conducted by the Brookings Institute found that increases in arts learning, such as engagement with theatre, significantly affect students’ school engagement, university aspirations and their likelihood of drawing on works of art as a means of empathising with others.
Exposing children and young people to theatre was also found to be a powerful tool for facilitating their self-efficacy (an individual’s belief in their capacity to act in the ways necessary to reach a specific goal) to promote positive social change, improving their ability to discuss complex and difficult subjects as well as developing their empathy.
Children’s empathy and emotional intelligence are developed through everyday interaction but they are also nurtured by music, books, and in particular, watching live theatre performances. When watching characters interact on stage, we as the audience connect with them and experience what they are thinking and feeling as if we were thinking or feeling it ourselves – we are practicing how to understand others. Having a safe space to explore difficult emotions is essential to strengthening empathetic muscles and live theatre provides the perfect platform for this. Bill English, founder of the San Francisco Playhouse, states that: “Theatre is like a gym for empathy. It’s where we go to build up the muscles of compassion, to practice listening and understanding and engaging with people that are not just like ourselves. We practice sitting down, paying attention and learning from other people’s actions. We practice caring.”
Theatre nowadays is more accessible to children and young people than ever. With shows to cater for all ages – from theatre designed for babies and toddlers, to stage adaptations of the nation’s favourite children’s books – the world of the stage is increasingly one that children and young people are welcomed into and inspired by. For older children and teenagers, theatre can start to rationalise and provide context to the complex world around them, often representing their own experiences and allowing them to feel heard and that their voices have value. At a time when they are likely to be struggling to establish their identity, theatre can be absolutely invaluable.
Taking your family to the theatre can be a fantastic way of making lasting memories and spending real quality time together. For children (and grownups!) going to see a play feels like something special, something out of the ordinary. Whether it’s the grandeur of the building itself, finding your red velvet seats or begging for a tub of ice cream in the intermission, the experience of going to the theatre is something unique before the play has even begun.
And when it comes to Christmas, there’s nothing quite as magical as taking the kids along to see a festive pantomime. Local pantos have become an institution for many families, coming along every year for adventures with all the sparkles, songs and slapstick silliness you could ask for with everyone from children to grandparents in tow! At a time when everyone is being brought together, there’s nothing quite like a panto to get the whole family humming festive tunes and full of cheer ready for the big day. With true love, a comedy dame, a grand adventure, spectacular dance routines and a heart-warming moral at the core of the story, there’s something for everyone.
Whatever age your kids are, there is always something valuable to be found from seeing theatre. Whether it’s engaging their imaginations and allowing them to dream, opening their minds to others’ perspectives or helping them to engage with and enjoy the texts they are studying at school, the experience of seeing live theatre is unequalled.
The magic of pantomime is something the whole family can enjoy and at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre it’s always wonderful to see multi-generational families in the audience. The theatre has lots of upcoming family shows, including festive panto Jack and the Beanstalk! www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk