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Holiday Fund: TheatreWorks encourages playful learning, creativity

Nonprofit is more than a theater, offers programs at little or no cost to kids

"All the world's a stage," according to the king of theater, William Shakespeare. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has taken that concept to heart by fostering theater skills and creative thinking throughout the community, offstage as well as on, in sometimes unexpected ways (during a kindergarten lesson on goldfish anatomy, for instance).

This is the TheatreWorks that audiences don't see: the wide range of programs for youth and kids, often available at little or no cost to the schools and organizations involved.

This past year, thanks in part to the $7,500 grant it received from the Holiday Fund, TheatreWorks was able to develop a new Playing with Science curriculum for elementary school students as part of its Concepts at Play program.

Concepts at Play brings TheatreWorks teaching artists into local schools (including, in Palo Alto to Barron Park, Duveneck, El Carmelo, Escondido, Greendell, Juana Briones, Nixon, Palo Verde and Walter Hays elementary schools) for 10-day residencies. Students, teachers and teaching artists work together on building collaborative skills, engaging their creativity and exploring core subjects in physically active -- in other words, playful -- ways.

Children, especially young children, learn best through play, so Concepts at Play features a variety of games to boost both fun and learning, according to TheatreWorks staff.

"I think what holds true in most cities is also true in Palo Alto: Each student is a unique learner," TheatreWorks Director of Education Amy Cole-Farrell told the Weekly. "Concepts at Play allows students to learn core concepts in science, math and language arts in a kinesthetic and fun way, tapping into self-expression and esteem."

Jen Tai, a kindergarten teacher at Duveneck Elementary School, has been utilizing Concepts at Play in her classroom for years.

"It is a different way of learning and teaching, but I love it," she said.

As part of its science curriculum, her class observes goldfish and guppies, comparing and contrasting their structures. With a game called "Build and Break," the students take turns coming to the middle of the room and acting as a part of the fish with their bodies and announcing which part they're portraying.

"I am the fin of the fish," one might say, while the next may add on by saying, "I am the gills of the fish." Once that fish is "built," the group then "breaks" so others can take a turn.

The games, Tai said, involve aspects of "voice, body and imagination," which the TheatreWorks teaching artists call three tools in an actor's toolbox.

"Many of the games incorporate focus skills. We also work on eye contact, a big social skill that can be hard for this age group," Tai explained.

Another example, which also fosters teamwork and concentration, is "Pass the Clap," in which the class forms a circle, then must take turns leading, getting the person next to them to clap in unison with them, without using words.

Tai said she's seen the impact the games have on learning. When she began incorporating spelling words into the games, for example, she saw a huge spike in her students recognizing those words and spelling them correctly later on.

The Holiday Fund grant also helps support TheatreWorks' many other projects. In-school performances of the "Oskar" series, for example, help elementary school students explore tough issues, such as gender identity and bullying, in entertaining, humorous ways. At Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, TheatreWorks teaching artists work with patients and their families as part of the Children's Healing Project, offering creative workshops and imagination games throughout the hospital's units. This year, it was able to expand its program for patients in the eating-disorders unit at the Children's Hospital's branch at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View and create a new "Oskar" touring assembly.

Aspiring playwrights at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools (among others) have benefited from the mentoring of established writers, who help develop the students' ideas and bring them to life with the Young Playwright's Project. TheatreWorks also offers two-week Young Storytellers Labs; student matinees with accompanying study guides and workshops; summer and vacation camps; and a professional-development institute for teachers on how to integrate arts into their core curricula.

Before incorporating the Concepts at Play games into her classes, Tai underwent training, observing TheatreWorks teaching artists at summer camps and then learning their techniques. In her 15 years as a teacher in the Palo Alto district, she said, it's the best training she's ever received.

One of Tai's favorite Concepts at Play programs is Playing with Poetry, which she will do with her current class in March. In this program, a TheatreWorks teaching artist comes into the classroom for an hour a day for two weeks, during which the class is divided into groups, with each learning -- through games -- a part of a poem they choose together (a previous favorite in Tai's class was Sandra Boynton's "Barnyard Dance").

At the end of the two weeks, the class recites and acts out its poem for an audience of parents, teachers and peers.

"Every year I worry my kids won't memorize the poem in time," Tai admitted, but "the whole-body movements and the games keep the kids engaged. They always perform and amaze me," she said.

For more information about the Holiday Fund, including how to donate and the agencies it supported this year, go to paloaltoonline.com/holidayfund.

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