Ingredients: A range of drama games which promote clear rules for preparing your body, voice and mind for creative work as a group.

The Big Sell: When I say MAGIC CIRCLE I want you all to form a perfect circle in complete silence. [Don’t accept the first circle that is made, keep pushing the group to make the circle as perfect as can be, and consider what qualities were required in the making of that circle.]

Strategy: I recently trained with Bigfoot Arts Education to become a Creative Facilitator. This means I can be employed in schools to provide creative supply for teachers, run after school clubs or provide professional development training. It was the most intensive, comprehensive training course I’ve ever done, and I’ve come away full of ideas which I can’t wait to put into action.

There is one overarching element that I feel the Bigfoot philosophy is strongest in promoting and encouraging – this is the importance of instilling discipline in the group and using explicit rules of creative play to surround all aspects of work with children and young people. These include the following:

  1. Create ground rules attached to specific rewards and consequences at the beginning of each session, and use these group behaviour contracts religiously throughout the session to promote the qualities necessary in positive group work.
  2. Let the group know the exact learning objectives and outcomes at the start so everyone is on board with the purpose of the shared work.
  3. Warm up the body, mind and voice through a variety of group exercises which allow no room for misinterpretation. For instance, show how to create a perfect circle for group work, respond to a clear command with immediate silence and focus, watch an instruction intently, listen to another person with your complete attention.
  4. And after performance, complete a cool down and reflective listening activity which asks the children to articulate the areas of their learning in order to check the objectives and outcomes have been met.

The verdict:

Now the use of rules may sound quite prescriptive and counter-productive to imaginative play, and at certain points when working in small groups the Bigfoot trainees did wonder “are we were in danger of inhibiting child-led learning?” As a trained Youth and Community worker, I have explored in great detail the principles of ‘informal education’ and how over-prescriptive learning outcomes can disengage and disempower learners. However, there are some key elements to the above practices which I feel support children and young people to feel more rather than less confident about offering their own ideas and feel a deeper sense of value in the creation of a shared artistic experience.

Firstly, we always focus ON THE WORK. So you set out the principles right at the beginning that everyone who wants to be in the session, wants to work hard to be an actor / artist / performer etc.. Anything less than 100% given to listening, watching, sharing, will inhibit the creative potential for that individual and the whole group. By stressing that the creative process is not easy and there are high expectations for EVERYONE, you are attributing value to the art that will be made. High stakes = Big gain.

Secondly, by setting out explicit learning objectives you are being open with your learners about your goals. You can create learning outcomes which allow plenty of room for creative manoeuvre (such as ‘Today we will be exploring the range of emotions experienced by children being evacuated in World War 2’). I do think you need to be careful here – if someone wants to add information which is outside the boundaries of that session, this needs to be recorded as an additional learning objective to be covered, either immediately or in the near future. It also requires a confident facilitator to hold two sets of information in their head – your original broad aims for this session and how they fit into the subject as a whole, with the route the group is taking which may include unexpected learning outcomes and reflect on and bring all of these together at the end.

Thirdly, and crucially to any artistic educational experience, you must ensure you have warmed up the group sufficiently to make everyone feel comfortable diving into their imaginations and sharing their ideas. Warm-ups should involve everyone so no one feels exposed – this builds trust and respect amongst members as well as navigating compromise. If people feel uncomfortable they need to be given choices about participating, but these choices need to adhere to the original principle of giving 100% of what they can offer.

Lastly, our trainer stressed if a session has not worked, even for only one child, as the teacher we must consider, what did I do wrong to disengage that child? We must believe that the work we are offering is of value and that every child (no matter their age, ability or background) has the potential to be an artist. Only once we have walked through the skills necessary to learning together, can we expect them to feel confident to learn – and drama works wonderfully to help embody our potential to be powerful ‘Actors’ in our lives and make change happen. As our trainer said “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand”.

I now see how some of my past practice has been too woolly, too vague, too ineffectual and this was not allowing child-led learning to blossom – it was undervaluing the importance of clear communication and expecting too little of those participating. I now feel armed with strong boundaries and clear expectations to open up deeper imaginative child-led practice.

Catchphrase: A common ‘signal for silence’ can be used throughout a session – when I say “Big” you say “Foot” and stand completely silent, waiting for the next instruction.

Left wanting more?

  • Good drama books include Theatre Games for Young Performers by Maria Novelly, Games for actors and non-actors by Augustus Boal, Drama games for Classrooms and Workshops by Jessica Swale.
  • Many of the ideas in this blog adhere to principles of informal education. Check out infed to find out more.