Why Do Play Performances With Children?

Timothy planned his own costume.  He wanted to be a seagull, and he thought a white plastic trash bag cut along the sides would be perfect.  It was.  This made Timothy soar in his performance; not only as a seagull, but as an empowered child.  His costume was far better than anything I could have given him.


Every summer my school offers a summer camp program.  The most exciting part of my camp group (six and seven year-olds) is the ‘play performance’.  It didn’t start that way at all.  Camp is camp, and that means having a real experience of outdoors, swimming, knature activities, arts and crafts, and camp songs.  Play performances seemed to evolve on their own.

Our camp has four themes.  When we are Kings and Queens, my older group is the ‘Mighty Mighty Dragons’. When we are The Wild West, my group is the ‘Mighty Mighty Mustangs’.  We’re Stingrays and Cheetahs for the Safari and Ocean units, always ‘Mighty Mighty’, of course.

It started with the Wild West years ago.  I couldn’t help but notice that the children began to do things on their own.  They built a tower for our mustang puppet, made up songs, and pretended to be different characters out west.  This was emergent curriculum, children so ready to act out something.  That ‘something’ turned out to be an incredible play performance. I can’t liken it to the success of building a difficult block structure, or learning to read, or painting the best piece of art; this play had that same level of accomplishment yet much more, because it involved the joint efforts of all the children.  That’s collaboration.  Pretty incredible for six and seven year olds.

Here’s where it gets remarkable; the children planned everything from script to costumes to parts.  I only guided and encouraged.  Well, I added the excitement of surprise by sneaking the children into the storage room to find a prop or a part for a costume.  We did this crawling the hallway and dodging all the other groups, James Bond style.  A scarf became a dress, and poster board was cut into cowboy chaps and a doorway.  The play became a special secret, even to parents.  The camp director ‘got it’ and became a spy.  Of course all of this empowered the children.

Kevin was shy, yet he seemed to like being part of the play.  When we sneaked into the storage room to look for items, he wanted to find something for his dog costume.  He found a piece of brown card stock paper and was eager to cut it out.  I saw that he was cutting out something tiny, a triangle to be exact.  “That’s my tail”, he said.  I asked what else he needed for a costume.  “Nothing”, he said.  When we walked out on stage, he stood so proud and tall.  He loved his costume.  No one else could even see it, but that didn’t matter.  Kevin knew it was there- it was his.  He walked out onto that stage with tall shoulders.  In his performance he was no longer the shy boy.

Owen often asked when his Mom would pick him up or how many hours there were in camp.  Swimming wasn’t his favorite activity, especially with the big water slide and cold water.  He didn’t have a large circle of friends at camp.  Yet when the children planned the play, he wanted to be ‘head of the cheetah family’.  There are six days in a camp session, and by day four he cried.  Day five was too much, and at drop-off Mom just took him home.  Oh, we had talked about the play on and off, and he really wanted to do it.  We even talked about his tall orange socks and how they would be a perfect cheetah costume for the play.  Day six, the last day of camp and ‘play day’ arrived.  Owen came to camp, a little unsure.  He was a star in the play!  Boy, did he pull it off with a huge smile.

I have learned along the way not to assign parts or give costumes or even have a say in the play.  Children always come up with something amazing and far more interesting than I could.  I never underestimate young children.  And, I always support their ideas.  That’s why our play performances are incredible.  When children are empowered and encouraged to do something on their own, they rise to the occasion.

Just ask Timothy, Kevin, and Owen.


About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
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21 Responses to Why Do Play Performances With Children?

  1. Tanya Cliff says:

    When children are empowered and encouraged to do something on their own, they rise to the occasion.

    Excellent post, Jennie! It is amazing what children can accomplish when we give them the material and the time and space to create!

  2. So true and so empowering for the children to be able to do their own thing. I have never forgotten performing in my first school play. Looking back it must have been awful but we didn’t think so and loved every minute. It’s always been a cherished memory. A moment of sheer pleasure in a school renowned for discipline and rules.

  3. reocochran says:

    Timothy’s seagull wings are perfect! Play acting is a good way to being out children’s imagination and creativity. I love when there are big boxes~ some call it a spaceship, others a cave or tunnel. It can be almost anything through a child’s eyes.
    I believe you are amazing, Jennie. It is hard not to ask, when the triangle “tail” is small, “Do you think the parents will see it?” You go beyond what I could do, in so many ways. 🙂

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thank you, Robin. Kevin’s parents could not see the tail, but They saw how proud and happy he was. I told them the whole story!

      • reocochran says:

        Of course, the children’s parents are happy with the results! 🙂 But you knew not to question the child’s choice, Jennie. I am not able to resist helping and suggesting. . .
        Makes me learn not to do this with my grandkids, even if I cannot “undo” my past suggestions to provide outward evidence of their inward successes. Just know: You are a rare teacher.

      • jlfatgcs says:

        Mega thank yous, Robin! Aren’t we better grandparents than we were as parents? I often think of how I would have reacted way back in the day. Hmm… I’ll choose my role as a teacher and grandparent!

  4. Oh, Jennie, this is such a heartening post. It makes me weep. I get so angry at what is being done to education in the UK. Acting in any form is vital for a healthy life and when it gets thrown off the curriculum or downgraded to an ‘if-we-have-time-and-money’ status, I am incandescent with rage. It’s the best therapy for any human being and I just know that your pupils are going to be the richer for it. Good on yer!

  5. Pingback: Why Do Play Performances With Children? | A Teacher’s Reflections | Rogues & Vagabonds

  6. swamiyesudas says:

    I am moved to Tears at reading this, my Dear Jenny! It is not that during ‘my’ days We never had things like these, though my father used to give me ideas about the Camp fires (though We never had camps). It is out of Sheer Happiness that modern Children get such facilities, and that some Teachers like You give them such Wonderful Opportunities to Grow!

    Keep Up Your Wonderful Work, my Dear, and God Bless You and Your Wards. Much Regards. 🙂

  7. Amy Reese says:

    Wonderful! I agree kids can be far more creative without us adults getting in their way.

  8. Wonderful! It’s reassuring to know there are teachers like you who not only help guide our youths, but allow them to feel confident and treasured when there are so many children who do not feel that way in their own home. Thank you!

  9. Excellent point about allowing children some space to shine. I think the best education is a combination of teacher-directed and student-selected. Congrats on finding a way to make that happen. 🙂

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