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Opinion_

Keeping creativity in the classrooms

17 November 2016
How play and imagination can help kids succeed in the 21st century

If politicians and industry want creativity and collaboration, why are we taking all the fun out of learning, ask Professor Robyn Ewing and John Saunders.

Children in a drama class

Dramatic play is not about acting as someone else; it’s about suspending your own situation momentarily and being someone else. Image: iStock.


In an inner-city classroom on an ordinary day, something extraordinary is happening.

Ashley, a boy on the autism spectrum who has behavioural challenges, is sitting on a chair in front of his classmates. This is, however, no ordinary chair. It is a “hot seat” – part of a drama exercise in which students take on the role of a character from a book and improvise around it.

Ashley’s behaviour, usually erratic and often disruptive, is calmer. He is playing an injured bird, a character in the book the class is reading, and he holds his arm across his chest protectively. In clear and deliberate language, Ashley explains to the class how he came to be injured and what his life as a bird has been like up to this point. His classmates hang off his every word. As a performance, it is compelling. It is also a leap forward in Ashley’s learning and self-confidence.

Ashley’s class is participating in School Dramaa professional learning program for primary teachers keen to use drama with literature to enhance students’ literacy skills. The program, which we launched in 2009, is offered by Sydney Theatre Company in partnership with the University of Sydney.

Creativity is an educational tool

As the pressure on teachers and students to achieve quantifiable results continues to rise, we have to ask – are we taking all the fun out of learning? And, if so, are there valid reasons to bring creativity and play back into our results-driven classrooms?

When politicians talk about equipping young Australians to succeed in the 21st century economy, they use buzzwords such as “creativity”, “collaboration” and “imagination”. Yet our education system often seems to push creativity out of the curriculum, increasing the technical emphasis on literacy and numeracy, and focusing on stressful, high-stakes testing of young students.

A recent Oxford University study found that, as technology races ahead, low-skilled workers are becoming more susceptible to being computerised right out of their jobs, with a whopping 47% of current jobs at risk. The study concluded that, for workers of the future to win the employment race, they will have to increase their creative and social skills.

As any passionate teacher will tell you, it is possible for education to nurture key skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving, imagination, communication, agility and empathy. And, as many studies will tell you – or perhaps even your own experience as a student or parent – the common path to nurturing these skills is to foster fun, play and creativity in the classroom.

We only need to watch young children engaged in play for a few minutes to observe how instinctively they use drama and creativity as teaching and learning tools. Dramatic play usually develops naturally and seamlessly from other forms of play as children build on their own lives and experiences. They use every day items as props and are ready to take risks to explore new possibilities and solve problems. They often re-enact stories they have heard or shared to make sense of their own world. Dramatic play is not about acting as someone else; it’s about suspending your own situation momentarily and being someone else.

Studies have shown that experiencing the world from different perspectives helps develop children’s capacity for empathy and compassion.

Learning another perspective

We build on this in the primary classroom. At its core, educational drama embraces engagement, embodiment and enactment. Drama allows us to bend time and space to explore, interact and represent new thoughts and ideas. Using drama in the classroom can enable children to step into the shoes of others. Focusing on the use of faces, gestures and bodies through mime and movement helps children understand how powerful non-verbal communication can be for self-expression and understanding others. While engaging in stories that lead to “as if” experiences, children cultivate their imagination, try out creative ideas and build confidence in not only who they are but who they would like to become.

Joel, a Sydney Theatre Company teaching artist, has been working with a primary school class this term that includes students who find learning very challenging. “What has amazed me,” says Joel, “is seeing these kids become so deeply engaged in learning through drama. It’s like we’ve hidden learning literacy somewhere in these drama strategies and the kids just love it.”

Studies have shown that experiencing the world from different perspectives helps develop children’s capacity for empathy and compassion. Teaching artist Jene has seen this first-hand in her classroom. “The sense of play, the subversion of status and the freedom for students to experiment with other voices and points of view all bring energy and engagement to the classroom that last well beyond the program.”

If we truly want to develop children’s creative, communicative, collaborative and problem-solving skills to help them become resilient and productive adults, we must put creativity at the heart of the classroom. Drama and creativity can help students develop a broad and inclusive view of the world which includes an understanding of the vast diversity of cultures and approaches to living. As novelist Ursula K. Le Guin writes, “The creative adult is the child who has survived.”

Professor Robyn Ewing AM is a Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. John Saunders is Manager of Education at the Sydney Theatre Company. This article originally appeared in The Guardian.

Annika Dean

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)