Preschool learning needs more drama

By

Erik Ketcherside

Last fall the U.S. Department of Education awarded a grant of $2.3 million to a unique collaboration between Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and Childsplay, the Tempe, Arizona-based professional theater for young audiences. Titled “Supporting Early Language Development of Preschool Children with Drama Integration,” the project is the most recent expression of a concept Childsplay developed nearly a decade ago — EYEPlay — that employs drama in preschool classrooms to improve standards-based early learning outcomes.

Since 2010, Childsplay has tested the concepts underlying EYEPlay, adapting and expanding them for use in multiple grade levels and subject areas. The consistent success of the program, documented by MLFTC researchers, has brought increased interest from school districts seeking to implement it, and foundations ready to fund it. With this Department of Education grant — the largest in the program’s evolution so far — EYEPlay will become part of the professional development programs for teachers in 90 metropolitan Phoenix preschool classrooms.

The why of EYEPlay 

Jenny Millinger is associate artistic director for Childsplay, and Korbi Adams is director of education and school programs. They begin describing EYEPlay by saying what it isn’t. Adams says, “When we come into classrooms and say, ‘We're going to use drama,’ a lot of teachers immediately think, ‘Great! I have some props already’; that we're going to put on a play. That’s not what we do in our EYEPlay work,” she says. “It's all process-based. It's about learning in the moment and reflecting on your experience through the lens of artistry and learning, rather than putting on a performance for people to see.”

Adams says EYEPlay has three units of focus. “One pairs pantomime, which is using your body and not your voice, with receptive language. We do a unit on pantomime in the fall, with a focus on semantic connections to vocabulary. The second unit, character development and expressive language, gets kids and teachers into roles as characters different than themselves to have really interesting dialogue together.” Adams says some of that interesting dialogue occurs when students are positioned as experts whose job it is to help their teacher.

Millinger stresses the importance of this roleplaying. “It's about establishing point of view and deepening theory of mind,” she says, “understanding that characters think in different ways than I do and how might I respond if I wasn't me but I was somebody else. How might I see my teacher being in a role in a situation that I might have experienced myself; how could I give that teacher advice based on my own knowledge?”

In the third unit, group storybuilding, the teacher stops a story and poses a problem, then has students create together, through facilitated improvisation, a solution. Millinger says this teaches the children problem-solving skills, “... based on their own predictions and ideas and analysis of how proposed solutions succeeded or failed, and iterating on those ideas moving forward.”

Millinger says EYEPlay grew out of a professional development program, Drama Frames, that Childsplay created to help K–8 teachers make drama part of their core curriculum. Millinger says, “The goal of Drama Frames is to provide teachers with facilitation skills and interest and love of drama such that they are finding new ways to incorporate drama as a teaching tool in their regular teaching day.” The initial Drama Frames study, also funded by USDOE, resulted in writing scores 20 percent higher in elementary classes that incorporated drama integration over scores in a control group.

Establishing a research baseline 

That success drew the attention of the Helios Education Foundation, which was interested in funding a professional development program for preschool teachers. Childsplay submitted Drama Frames, Millinger says — unsuccessfully. “They told us, ‘‘We think you have a great program, but you have a lot to learn about early childhood.’”

Helios provided a grant to allow Childsplay to retool Drama Frames for preschool. Adams says, “We spent 18 months studying with experts in language and literacy development in early childhood, in cognitive development and in early childhood creative drama. We got a teaching artist team together with our education staff, to do a deep-dive into early childhood education.”

Helios also recommended that Childsplay contact MLFTC Associate Professor Michael Kelley and enlist his help overseeing the research component of the project.

“Helios wanted the first year to be a planning year,” Kelley says, “and they wanted documented work on the value of the model. That’s also when we came up with the name, EYEPlay: ‘Early Years Educators at Play.’ We got the proposal together, submitted it to Helios, all of us tweaked it a little, then they funded implementation in a number of preschools over the course of four years with $346,000.”

More implementations followed, says Millinger. “In 2015, in collaboration with Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and the Osborn and Creighton school districts, we received a new grant from Helios to modify EYEPlay for a dual-language environment. Helios was very interested in learning about the effectiveness of dual-language instruction in preschool, and drama and kinesthetic learning are extraordinarily supportive of language acquisition.”

Kelley’s team at MLFTC, which now includes associate professor Scott Marley, and assistant professors Kathleen Farrand and Katie Bernstein, will be producing the final results of that four-year dual-language study in September. Millinger says Childsplay and MLFTC replicated that DLL program in a partnership with Orlando Repertory Theatre for dual-language classrooms in the Orange County, Florida, public school system.

Each successful iteration of EYEPlay has set the stage for the next. For example, the work with English language learners suggested ways of working with special needs children. Kelley says, “We see a real payoff for those kids because they don't always have the language to tell you what they know, but they can show through their bodies because of the embodied learning experience that they’re understanding.” Kelley says those special needs students often begin modeling their peers through EYEPlay, “so we're seeing some really interesting outcomes; very positive outcomes for kids who might otherwise just sit on the side.”

"I have never seen anything like this" 

Two preschool girls in EYEPlay classroom

Preschoolers in EYEPlay classrooms show increased engagement and comprehension

Sitting on the side is something that doesn’t happen in any EYEPlay classroom, and teachers enthusiastically share their experiences with methods they learned from Childsplay’s teaching artists. “Comprehension for my English language learners is a thousand times deeper,” wrote one. “If they want to understand winter and cold, they wouldn’t recognize the words. But when they pantomime putting on coats and shivering, they get it and understand.”

Another teacher described how the learning in her class through EYEPlay goes beyond language. “I have noticed so much more empathy. We talk about emotions and have books on how you would help each other or share. I think that this has a lot to do with how they treat each other. I have never seen anything like this before in any of my classes.”

Most meaningful to Millinger and Adams are the words of the teacher who said of Childsplay’s teaching artists, “I have never been around so many positive people who are there just to help you become a better teacher. I can’t go back to how I taught before.”