It has been said that theater affects children in multiple ways. It allows children to be creative and indulge in the beauty of arts at a young age. But what if I told you that theater did more than that for your child? In fact, according to Professor Jay Greene from the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, theater has the ability to increase tolerance, empathy and other cognitive skills in students.
It’s almost impossible to measure the effects of theater, but Greene and his team might have made a breakthrough. Researchers examined the impact that high-quality theater productions have on students. After reviewing the data from this experiment, researchers determined that students who watch live theater productions have enhanced knowledge of the plots, increased vocabulary, tolerance and a greater ability to read others’ emotions.
I only attended a couple of plays as a child, and this study makes me wonder how much better I would have scored on my reading comprehensive tests in grade school had I experienced live theater more often. Professor Greene led a research team that performed a randomized field study, offering various students from 7th to 12th grade free theater tickets to either Hamlet or A Christmas Carol. Approximately 670 students completed the application process and were organized into 24 groups, based on similarities in grade level, demographics and class subject (English, Drama, etc.). Researchers constructed lotteries to determine which groups would be “treatment” groups (receiving the free tickets) and which group would be a “control” group (not receiving free tickets). Some students in both the treatment and control groups also read or watched movie versions of the plays.
Following up, Greene’s researchers sent out surveys to all of the students who participated in the study. For each play, researchers asked students a few questions about the plot, vocabulary, emotions and other psychographic information. The results were eye-catching.
The chart above confirms that students who went to see the live theater shows knew more about the story and vocabulary definitions than those who did not see the performance. Greene’s team worked with a Reading the Mind in the Eyes test (RMET). The RMET is an advanced test regarding theory of the mind. RMET is used to assess individual differences in social and emotional cognition across various groups and cultures. By administering a youth version of this test, researchers concluded that students who saw the live show increased their ability to read others’ emotions by 23 percent of a standard deviation, compared to 21 percent by students of the control group. I was surprised to see that the tolerance level of the treatment group was lower than that of the students who did not see the live theater show. Researchers determined that interest in seeing theater is strongly related to tolerance and may be a reason for the level differences.
I’m incredibly proud to be a part of the theater industry. The staff at Dallas Children’s Theater believes theater is an art form that everyone should explore. With a variety of theater and video classes, DCT encourages students to get hands-on experience and learn valuable skills in theater arts. These skills benefit them well beyond the camp experience. Because of the in-depth knowledge they receive from DCT teaching artists, these concepts have the opportunity to be imprinted in their formative minds for the long term. DCT’s Associate Artistic Director and Education Director, Nancy Schaeffer, wholeheartedly agrees with the results of this study.“This study confirms what I’ve known for years. This is why I do what I do. Theater is powerful,” Schaeffer said.
Here at DCT, Schaeffer directs the DCT Academy and Teen Conservatory classes as well as the Curtains Up on Reading Residency program. She also directs and choreographs several Teen Scene and mainstage shows every year. After 30 years in this industry, Schaeffer’s perception of theater has not changed.
“It is so helpful to get validation on the power of live performance. I feel very strongly that there is much value in this work,” she said.
It’s a lovely sight to see children being inspired and emotionally in tune with the characters on stage. Robyn Flatt, DCT’s executive artistic director, believes the value of theater is easily detectable just by watching children’s facial expressions.
She states, “Their eyes light up. They’re dynamic. They’re excited. They want to tell you about it. They have connected emotionally to the event, and then they have an experience that they want to share with you.”
Flatt goes on to say, “Emotion happens before learning and you’ve got to connect on that emotional level. And that’s what we do in theater. We bring emotion to it.”
I believe that kids who have seen DCT’s productions will remember these shows for the rest of their lives. The power of theater is remarkable, and DCT’s only hope is to share this power with generations to come.
This study will appear in the Winter 2015 issue of the online journal, Education Next, and is currently available on the publication’s website at https://educationnext.org/learning-live-theater. Please visit www.dct.org to get more information about our upcoming shows, events and academy classes.
To learn more about how your child, class or afterschool group can benefit from DCT’s programming, contact Nancy Schaeffer at 214-978-0110.
Written by: Tammie Riley, Community Engagement Coordinator
Hometown: Houston, TX
Studies: Public Relations, minor in Spanish and certificate in Technical Communication