I have taught a lot of things during the course of my teaching career, but teaching drama to children ranks as one of the most fun. I have been able to work with various sized groups and ages, writing and performing original plays throughout the school year (usually for holidays). During the summer I also regularly taught elementary aged students, and occasionally middle school students at a College for Kids program.
It all began because I could never quite find the right play. It didn’t have the number of actors I wanted or parts of it didn’t appeal to me. So I started writing plays myself. Now I have about 75 of them for all ages.
So if you want to experience a rush of creativity, you can try your hand at writing plays for children too, and if you have the opportunity to involve children in the process, you should. You can maximize the talents and interests of children with every facet of playwriting, from creating the props and costumes to designing the advertisements and the call sheet, lighting and set crew, etc.,
Where to Start
First, I would think about the purpose of the play. Is it to entertain, persuade, inform or a mixture of all these? Then I would determine who the audience is (a specific grade, whole school, family and community members, the combination of any of these people, etc.) what the age range is and how many actors there are. I have found that kids they have great ideas, are extremely creative, and really embrace drama after you get them out of their shell. Do some reading of children’s plays and see what’s out there. I’m sure this will help you get some ideas of your own.
If you have students and you want to get them out of their shell, I would suggest some short drama exercises at the onset of each class. It might be as simple as bringing a hat from home and acting out a character with the hat or pantomiming a favorite TV show.
On the first day of class, I like to play a simple Name Game (if I have a mixture of students from various classes or schools and they don’t know each other) where they say their first name and something they like to do that starts with that letter. I keep reviewing the names and their favorite things, and when everyone is introduced, individual students take turns saying the names of the other students and repeating their favorite things, before they go all around the circle being corrected by the student standing in the circle.
If you do this with every student, you’re guaranteed to have everyone learn all the names on the first day. This helps you out a great deal, because you will need to know the students’ names plus their character names!
The power of brainstorming and sharing ideas comes after a general introduction of what makes a “good play”. You can brainstorm by yourself, too, so no worries if you are the sole writer. I share the purpose and then some ideas of what worked great from past experience. For example, the play can’t be offensive or overly scary and it must be appropriate for the given audience. I remind the students of the number of parts that must be in the play based on who is either in my class or who the play is written for to be the actors. Then I talk about what types of plays make a great setting for that number of characters so the audience can keep the characters straight.
Now if it is for an observance of a holiday then that is different from just an enrichment type of play which might take place at a camp or a school or it ight have some type of talent show embedded in the play if kids want to showcase their talent. I also have the students keep in mind that the idea has to have enough depth to work. In other words, the play can’t get over in a few minutes so there needs to be some rising action and then a resolution and the audience needs to be aroused in some way or learn something, etc.
Creativity – You’ll Know It When You Hear It
I have the kids prepare some possible titles, a list of characters, a general plot and an ending to their idea. We share those ideas and each idea goes up on a blackboard (whiteboard) to be voted on. We talk about the positive strengths of each idea and the drawbacks and vote on the top 3; then talk more about them. We vote again until we have one idea for the play. Usually I get the idea on the 2nd day, but if it takes longer, no worries.
A great idea is worth waiting for. I remember the time, we just could not get an idea until a little first grader had the idea of writing about zoo animals being stolen from their cages at night so the zookeepers dressed up like animals to solve the crime. There was the play about a zoo running out of money so the zookeeper took the animals home. And there was the play about Candy Land and the kids playing the game licking lollipops and getting sucked into the game to then play the life-size game around the room, and hoping to defeat Lord Licorice to get back home.
How could I ever forget the play about the kids who went to the circus with their family (also actors) and wandered into the dressing room instead of the bathroom and ended up being on stage as clowns only to be recognized by their parents who sat amongst the audience members? Kids love mysteries so you might want to think of one. For example, I wrote a play about the bed and breakfast where the dog took the false teeth from a patron and a pearl necklace from another or a play about the camp counselor who dropped banana peels every time he played a trick on the campers?
Props, Costumes, Oh My!
I also tell the students that we will be providing our own costumes and props so we need to keep that in mind when creating our play. If something sounds too difficult to make, we need to simplify it or change it to make it work. Kids all tell the class what types of costumes and dress up clothing they may have at home so ideas often are piggy-backed after these ideas. For example, many times there are certain animal costumes that kids have at home so we have had lots of animal plays, and once someone had all of the Wizard of Oz costumes so we have a play about what fairy tales taught us, and if kids are musical (can sing, play instruments, dance) or have other talents (juggle, do gymnastics, tell jokes, ride a unicycle), we try to incorporate these unique talents.
Animals are always a sure win and you could add optional parts for various talents to appeal to your buyer of the play. It will make the play more versatile.
Various Parts/ Point of View
I always have the students memorize their parts and give a reward of some sort when each child has done this. I have them number to about 15 or 20 on the back of the script (after I type it up, read it together as a class, and highlight the individual parts), and they need to practice the play that many times by saying their lines after someone (an older brother or sister, friend, parent) says the preceding line(s). That person initials that the play was practiced once. The students need to repeat the practice sessions the expected number of times (15 or 20). Then they have earned their treat. Usually, that is all it takes to learn their lines. Sometimes I have students try out for different parts or we pick parts by the process of elimination. If only one person wants a certain part, they can have it. Sometimes parts are given to certain children based on the nature of the part.
For example, if we wrote the part for the juggler because Child A can juggle, then that is his part. Or once I had a set of twins so one twin was a teacher of a modern-day classroom, and then when we went back in time, the other twin was a student of long ago in class. You can also break up the narrator parts if there are too many lines or tell the story from different points of view which can bring more interest into the play. You might think of mini-plays that can be put together like Fractured Fairy Tales. I’ll never forget one play we had where the elderly lady wanted to give money to a camp that was going to be shut down and everyone in class wanted to fall in the lake with the lady (a plastic kiddie pool that had seaweed). Only the student who brought in the seaweed brought in a full bucketful that had real snails and leeches, etc. so the actor who “won” this coveted role did not want to fall in the pool, but we persuade her anyway.
We have had packed houses for summer school, inviting all of the classes and family members, performed at libraries inviting family members and children of all ages, and entertained entire schools. The children have never let me down and have always risen to the best on the day of the performance. They have helped each other with lines, found costumes for each other, and really made the sets come alive. They have said their lines loudly over the voices of younger audience members and have been just great to work with.
Now Give It a Try
Now it’s your turn to give it a try. You might want to start with a play with fewer parts first. Get the ideas down and type up the play. Then edit it. Add fun language. Add some humor. Find ways to involve the audience with the play. Through your play writing, you will teach children more than drama skills. They will gain confidence and learn to work in a group. They will take your play make it come alive and see how this affects an audience.
And, I bet, they will be ready for more. I’m hoping you will, too.