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A teaching role: How theater enhances academic ability, performance in youths

Editor’s note: Part two of a three-part series on theater for young audiences.

Will attending a performance of “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” boost your child’s academic abilities?

No one would argue the importance of literacy or math skills, but study after study has shown that consistent participation in theater and the arts greatly improves academic performance and significantly raises standardized test scores.

The American Alliance for Theatre & Education used data collected by the College Entrance Examination Board to determine that students involved in drama coursework outscored non-arts students on the SAT by an average of 65 points in the verbal component and 34 points in the math component. And the group further determined that drama helps to improve school attendance and reduce high school dropout rates.

The Creative Advocacy Network has reported data that indicate involvement in the arts is linked to higher academic performance and increased standardized test scores.

In recognition of March 20’s World Day of Theatre for Children and Young People, sponsored by the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People and its U.S. affiliate, we asked local theater professionals for their insights on how children benefit academically from theater.

The participants include John D. Newman, Utah Valley University Noorda Theatre Center for Children and Youth director; Ryan Radebaugh, Hale Center Theater Orem theater school director; Kate Rufener, Grand Theatre's Grand Youth coordinator; Penelope Marantz Caywood, University of Utah Youth Theatre artistic director; Teresa Dayley Love, Brigham Young University Theatre for Young Audiences director/writer/producer; and Clin Eaton, Hale Centre Theatre West Valley youth theater instructor.

John D. Newman: Participation in theater and drama improves attendance; increases reading, language and comprehension skills; builds self-esteem; and closes the achievement gap for students of lower socio-economic status. Participation in theater enhances social awareness, pragmatic appropriateness, problem-solving skills and the ability to work and communicate with others. Students with autism spectrum disorders who participate in drama and theater learn critical social skills in a safe and structured environment.

Ryan Radebaugh: Students have gone through our education department and commented on how it has become easier for them to focus in school and follow through with their growing responsibilities. They memorize historical and mathematical facts with greater ease.

Kate Rufener: Theater explores the attachments and connections between “hard” academic skills and a humanities understanding of those skills. From a strictly academic perspective, theater students learn “hard” skills such as physics, spatial reasoning, planning, interpersonal/leadership skills, creation/design, research skills and a host of hands-on mathematics and science requirements. Beyond the academic requirements so popular in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs, students of theater learn how they fit in the world, how their desires for social changes can be enacted, empathy and the importance of self-expression.

Penelope Marantz Caywood: I have seen measurable outcomes resulting from creating theater with young people. Students improve their communication skills and their capacity to read, write and speak. Theater is a collaborative team sport that involves a lot of problem-solving. Students build positive self-esteem and a motivation to learn. Theater can provide an avenue of achievement for students who might otherwise not be successful in school.

Live theater requires a different kind of attention than TV, the DVR, YouTube and Netflix. You can’t pause and you can’t rewind. You have to pay attention to the words, the movement and the facial expressions, and put that into the proper context of time and place. Whether it’s simply hearing two sides of an argument or identifying with the feelings of a character, theater builds listening skills.

The material produced may come from a moment in history, a classic piece of literature or be about an important social issue. Regardless, I feel it should enhance and support the work of our teachers and our schools.

Teresa Dayley Love: Theater provides context. There’s an agreement between audience and performers to look at ideas, thoughts and possibilities carefully for a few minutes together. ... A few minutes of rich engagement in theater can help children take leaps in their understanding of the world and their place in it. We know from the science of the brain that the most powerful learning takes place with an accompanying emotional experience, and that sounds like theater to me.

Clin Eaton: Theater naturally ties in very well with all English curriculum. Students read plays in school, especially Shakespeare, but sometimes, seeing a show like “Les Miserables” or “The Phantom of the Opera” can inspire the student to read the book that the theatrical piece was based on.

Theater also teaches history. Theater often parallels the time that the piece was written. Greek and Roman tragedies, medieval passion plays, Italian and English Renaissance pieces, Restoration comedies and turn-of-the-century realism and naturalism plays all support a well-rounded history curriculum.

At the junior high and high school level, theater is a co-curricular and extracurricular subject. I know the theater students at Riverton High School, where I teach, and most high schools run the gamut from straight 4.0 honor roll to theater being the only class they attend — and sometimes, theater is the only reason they come to school in the first place.

Next: The elements essential to making theater for young audiences entertaining.