“To Play” vs “The Play”
In 1582, in his book Positions, Richard Mulcaster, citing Plato, listed five essential studies for the young student: reading, writing, singing, drawing, and playing. When I first read that I thought that he meant “playing” as in “player,” or “actor,” and was kind of disappointed when I realized that he was referring not to drama but to playing a musical instrument (which, with singing, doubles the number for music!) Still, I was delighted that music and visual arts were up there with the essentials, and if you include rhetoric and the artistry of writing, the arts get four of the five!
But the more I learned about Mulcaster and his daily use of drama in his classroom, the more I realized that theatre was not, at the time, considered an arts discipline in itself, but the product of music, dance, visual arts, and “actio” (physical rhetoric), all of which Mulcaster included in his daily instruction. Through rhetoric, drama is directly connected to writing. (I am personally convinced by my research that the first draft of The Taming of the Shrew was a riotous and “play”ful collaboration of schoolboys at Stratford Grammar School, but I’ll save that for another post).
Today, outside of the field of child development, “‘play” is too often perceived as a distraction from learning—something in conflict with instruction. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, play is the first—and the most vital—foundational step in literacy; and the more that play can be folded into instruction, the the deeper and more enduring the learning. This is true all through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age (as I am here to testify!)
The following is an excerpt from the final chapter of my book:
“When my four-year-old granddaughter walks in the door, inevitably the first thing she says to me is ‘play with me.’ That primal need for social connection and play will be dominant for at least the next twenty years and, in fact, it will never go away completely. Our minds develop in a social context. Children learn from playing with each other far more than they learn from schooling, which, for better or for worse, opens a wealth of opportunity. Is it any wonder that the most ancient and authentic form of communicating a story is called a ‘play’?”
At any age and IN any age, drama, whether as the verb “play” (e.g. improvisation) or as the noun “play” (e.g. finished performance) engages and entertains as it educates. The education one receives through drama/theatre goes way beyond literacy. It teaches empathy, social skills, time management, collaboration, cooperation, listening, thinking-on-feet, and on and on. Most important, once again, it “frames the mind for learning.” Cognition!