Theatre-inspired ideas to boost creative skills

Written by: Lorna McGinty | Published:
Stage spectacular: A recent Let’s Play production with children from Queen’s Park Primary School in Brighton performing Emil and the Detectives at Theatre Royal Brighton (Image: National Theatre)

How can we integrate creativity into the primary classroom? Drawing on the approaches of the National Theatre’s Let’s Play programme, Lorna McGinty offers some ideas and inspiration

Ofsted’s proposed new Education Inspection Framework recognises the importance of a broad and balanced curriculum for primary-aged children and that the narrowing of the curriculum that we have seen in recent years has adversely affected the most disadvantaged children.

A new criterion of developing children’s “cultural capital” has been added to the framework, explained as: “The essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.”

Participation in drama and the arts has countless benefits for children; a medium through which they can explore and express new ideas, develop empathy and curiosity, as well as learn collaboration and team-work skills.

The National Theatre believes creativity is an integral part of school life and that all young people should have the opportunity to see, explore and take part in theatre, no matter where they are in the UK. And not just because of these benefits, but also because of the vast range of career opportunities that the creative sector offers.

There is huge employment growth within the sector and it remains the fastest growing part of the UK’s economy. Indeed, a World Economic Forum report stated recently that by 2020, creativity will be among the top three most important skills for employers.

The National Theatre works with primary schools across the UK through national learning programmes, touring productions and teacher training. Its new programme for teachers, Let’s Play, aims to transform theatre-making in schools and ensure that creativity is embedded throughout the curriculum. There are many simple ways to add a creative dimension to classroom activities and to use the school play as a moment of whole-school collaboration and learning. So, what lessons have we learned in running our programmes?

Book-end the day in a creative way

We all know the value of structuring the school day effectively and providing pupils with a sense of routine and stability. Starting with an activity to help ground the children and prepare them for learning will set the tone for the day. Closing the day in the same way is a useful way to give pupils a moment to reflect on their learning for the day and centre themselves before going home.

Start the day with a focus exercise, such as Follow-the-Leader mirroring for key stage 1, where a pupil or teacher performs simple movements and the rest of the class imitate their actions, helping with concentration, observation, social skills and the exploration of new gestures and body language.
Try out group-counting with key stage 2 pupils – pupils close their eyes and try to count to 10 as a group with only one person speaking at a time. If two people say a number at the same time, they must start again with one. In this exercise they will be speaking and listening, focusing on cooperation, collaboration and listening.

Make every voice heard

Children are implicitly playing around with new vocabulary, body language and expression through drama exercises. This can help to build confidence in expression and the ability to structure their thoughts to share with others.

Practise vocal exercises which focus on every child being given a chance to speak and be heard. Give the children a bean bag to pass to each other. As each child passes the bean bag to a class mate instruct them call out: “My name is ... and I say Good Morning!” Encourage them to play with the tone, pitch and volume of their voice as they pass their voice across the classroom.

When approaching a class book, immerse the children in the world of the book or poem with a Story Whoosh. Break the story or poem into eight to 12 sections that cover all the major plot points and introduce the key characters, locations and themes of the story. As the teacher tells the story using these sections, the class must create a series of mini improvisations or tableaux that bring the teacher’s words to life.

As each new character or place is introduced, children get up to represent each character and act out what the teacher is saying. At any point the teacher can call out “Whoosh” and all the children acting go back to their seats and the playing space is re-set, ready to continue with the story.

Teachers are learners too

With the central focus on children’s learning, it is important not to forget the learning and development needs of your teachers as well. Consider which resources and learning programmes teachers might benefit from to plan and lead creative sessions with their pupils.

Local arts organisations often have learning departments and offer learning programmes for schools, discount rates for school groups and training opportunities for teachers.

The National Theatre’s learning programmes are designed for any school to take part. On Demand in Schools is a free service which allows teachers in UK state schools to stream National Theatre productions directly to their classrooms, supported by specially designed curriculum-linked teaching resources. Let’s Play, meanwhile, involves training for up to four teachers led by professional theatre-makers (see further information).

The school play

Taking part in a school play can have a transformative effect on children, helping them to develop self-confidence, use their imagination, express emotion and learn about themselves and their abilities. But it can also be used as an all-encompassing learning opportunity drawing on different aspects of the curriculum.

Practise writing and literacy skills by asking pupils to create character profiles, or to write letters in the role of the character they are playing. Write a press release about the event for the local newspaper as a writing exercise.

Backstage and offstage crew are as important as the on-stage actors. Assemble a production team to look after technical aspects such as lighting, music and managing the stage, as well as ticketing and seating the audience. Work together to design and create costumes, sets and props by using recycled materials or searching local charity shops. And when planning your play, unearth the talents of your colleagues by establishing a production team for the show and encouraging cross-collaboration across different departments

A treat for the whole community

The school play is an opportunity not just to engage with staff and pupils, but to bring the wider community together. Let the play take centre stage in your school calendar and create this moment to celebrate the achievements of everyone involved.

Invite the local mayor to watch the production, as well as the local newspaper. You could send an invitation to a local care home to attend or take the performance to them.

Use your staging creatively to make more room for the audience and transform the space; rather than using a traditional proscenium arch staging, consider a “thrust stage” with audience on three sides. Or perhaps perform in an outdoors space to create a summer festival atmosphere. 

  • Lorna McGinty is the Let’s Play project manager at the National Theatre.

Further information & resources

  • Useful video resources for teachers include:
  • Voice exercises:
  • Key stage 1 tips:
  • Key stage 2 tips:
  • Exploring roles in the theatre:
  • On Demand in Schools is the National Theatre’s free video streaming service for teachers, supported by teaching resources:
  • Let’s Play supports teachers to create a piece of theatre, including a theatre-making course, scripts, musical scores, backing tracks, curriculum-linked resources and a teacher toolkit. Bursary places are available, including for schools with above average numbers of free school meal/Pupil Premium pupils or whose pupils have limited access to cultural opportunities:

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