On Monday we took our 3 year old daughter to the theatre to watch Room on the Broom and other tales by Julia Donaldson. She loved it, and it was obvious that many of the others did too. If you live in the UK and have children, I don’t think Julia Donaldson will need any introduction, but if you don’t know her books, you really should. She is the author of loads of fantastic (mostly rhyming) books for young children with brilliant illustrations. I think many people will have heard of The Gruffalo, but some of our other favourites in this house are Zog, The Princess and the Wizard, Monkey Puzzle, The Smartest Giant in Town, and, of course, Room on the Broom. Many of them are great for vocabulary and language work too, but I’ll perhaps return to that theme another day!
The stage show is Julia herself and members of her family acting out various different ones of her stories with different puppets, masks and general role-play. They sing songs, and there’s lots of audience participation with children going up on stage to play various parts and everyone joining in repeated refrains etc. For example, in Room on the Broom itself, every time the witch tapped her broomstick, we all had to shout “whoosh, they were gone” which is a repeated line from the book.
After the show, I picked up a leaflet about a brilliant website which is all about experiencing books not just reading them. Picturebookplays is a website for schools, all about acting out picture books with children to expand their learning while having fun. It’s got lots of ideas of picture books you can use, as well as videos of children acting out books and ideas of how to do it. You can even download free masks for some of the characters. Check it out here.
At the show, it was interesting to see the different reactions of the different children – some shouting and laughing and dashing down to the front as soon as there was a suggestion of going on stage, some watching and joining in from their seats and still others, clinging on to a parent and not making any physical reaction to what they were watching. The same can happen in school or in therapy sessions – different children with different personalities respond in their own ways to different activities, and it can be difficult to know at the time what they are understanding or remembering.
My daughter sat on my lap throughout the show, clapping at times and staring at the action, but I wasn’t sure at the time how much she was really taking in. However, later that afternoon, we went to the park and she started re- enacting the story of Room on the Broom, in lots of detail, assigning roles to each of us and her soft toys and reciting whole chunks of dialogue. She did know and enjoy the book before, but seeing it on stage and watching other children go up and take on the roles had brought it to life for her. Now she has really experienced it and it took on new meaning for her and has become part of her play and language.
It can be the same when we try to teach children new concepts or new words. They can hear things and partially take them in, but often it’s only when they truly experience them that they come to life and take on real meaning. This is especially true for children with language difficulties. They hear words or stories and they may learn chunks of it, but the bits don’t all connect together for them in a meaningful way. This is why young children learn so well through play, especially role play. Characters come for life for them, and they can explore stories and ideas, talk about them and expand their understanding all by acting out familiar stories and, even better, adding to them, changing them and taking on different roles. The first time my daughter acted out that story, she wanted to be the witch; the next time she played the role of the cat. What a great way of learning language as well as thinking about the perspectives of others and giving and receiving instructions. Who would have thought a simple stage show could teach a child so much!