For more than two decades, the work of a local nonprofit has enabled children to have fun and be creative, all while learning valuable life skills such as self-confidence and empathy.
The Peninsula Youth Theatre, based in Mountain View, provides drama programs to children that range from complete productions to classes and summer camps. The organization received a Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund grant of $5,000 to fund "Play in the Box" drama classes for East Palo Alto children. The classes are free for third- through fifth-graders attending the East Palo Alto Boys & Girls Club.
"Theater helps build confidence and public-speaking skills," said Meg Fischer, who oversees the Play in the Box program. "We don't expect all the kids in our classes to grow up wanting to be actors, but all of them will need to talk to groups of people at some point. All of them will need to express their thoughts, to think clearly."
Peninsula Youth Theatre started the Play in the Box program five years ago to facilitate drama education for children, Executive Director Karen Simpson said. The program consists of on-site afterschool classes during which a group of children work together to put on a short play for parents and friends at the school, Simpson added.
Other programs put on by the organization are time-intensive for the entire family, Simpson said but not this one. In a production, children have responsibilities and parents have a 25-hour per play volunteer requirement.
The Play in the Box program earned its name because it relies on a literal box, which contains key props, a costume list, scripts and pre-made backdrops, Simpson said.
"The difference between a drama program and conducting a visual-arts program in school is that you can easily carry art supplies," Simpson said. "But putting on a play requires designing sets, lights, costumes and props. With Play in a Box ... we bring in backdrops and provide the director. In 10 weeks, children will work on costumes and props, and at the end, will perform a short play."
The organization works with children throughout the Peninsula at its headquarters in Mountain View and also at outreach sites as far south as Saratoga and north as Redwood City, Simpson said.
To include East Palo Alto children, Fischer said, Peninsula Youth Theatre customized their Play in the Box program to meet their specific needs. Classes take place at the East Palo Alto Boys & Girls Club, not on a school campus. Instead of a 10-week session culminating in a production like other Play in the Box sites, East Palo Alto students participate in four-week sessions dedicated to different topics, Fischer said.
"We are doing weekly classes," she said, "and every four weeks, we change the subject matter. The idea is to give (the students) a survey of different topics within theater. For example, we will do four weeks of improvisation and quick thinking, and then we'll switch to puppetry or mask making. The goal is to utilize as many of the different intelligences as possible and hopefully find something that each student is excited about."
With guidance from Fischer, Melinda Marks started teaching East Palo Alto Play in a Box classes in September. Though the drop-off model of the Boys and Girls Club creates specific teaching challenges Marks said she does not know ahead of time how many or which children will attend her class the program started off well, she said. Marks also said she enjoys the opportunity to develop a curriculum based on community needs.
Donna Finlay's daughter has participated in the Play in the Box program three years at another outreach site of the Peninsula Youth Theatre. Finlay attends Castro Elementary School in Mountain View, which has hosted Play in the Box classes for five years.
"She looks forward to it more than her other extracurricular activities," Finlay said. "She is very excited for theater day."
Children participating in drama also learn the value of working with others, Fischer said.
"(One) thing the kids learn from a program like Play in the Box is responsibility," Fischer said. "When we're working on a performance ... if you don't memorize your lines, everyone else is affected. We all rely on each other. Theater is not just about one person."
Though responsibility to others is not explicitly taught in Play in the Box drama classes, the young participants are aware of the importance of cooperation.
"I enjoy how all the kids get to act; everyone gets a part," said Finlay's daughter, a fifth-grader at Castro. "We get to work together to make a play."
Executive Director Simpson added that drama also enables children to consider what other people might be feeling or thinking.
"Kids who engage in the arts become better students. They are more interested and gain empathy," Simpson said. "Particularly in the dramatic arts, empathy is a big (skill learned), when you start looking at things from another's point of view, when you become another character."