Review: The Dramatic Difference

Should you wish to use drama as an aid to exploring emotional discovery and empathy for 4-6 year olds, The Dramatic Difference, by Victoria Brown and Sarah Pleydell, is a great book for you. Should you wish to explore simple theatrical or language-based activities that have a big impact, stay far far away.

Here’s what this book will do for you:

  • It will guide you through the major concepts of storytelling with children into some very specific examples of how teachers have taken this idea and incorporated it into their curriculum.
  • It will offer up extended dramatic story ideas for 3-6 year olds (However, many of their examples are too complex for three year olds to understand intuitively.).
  • It is a book you must read cover to cover before using.

What it won’t give you:

  • Solutions for transitioning from story-telling moment to story-telling moment. I found myself picturing a flustered and overwhelmed teacher attempting to keep twenty 3 year olds calm and focused while spraying their faces for “feeling the ocean,” remembering what part of the story came next, and moving them over to another area of the room for listening to appropriate music while using finger puppets.
  • Ideas for simplifying. Their dramatic stories have a high number of tactile props that could be overwhelming for someone who has never used drama. They fail to offer ways to address ideas without props. Plus, most of their dramas take place over several days with many chapters. They failed to offer up solutions for 20 minute one-shot deals.
  • Techniques for moving beyond mimicry and repetition into interpretation. All the dramatic stories are set up in such a way that children mimic the same movements and use the same props to represent the same things. (Like a wall covered in identical works of art, but each stamped with a different child’s name.) There seems to be very little opportunity for children to interpret the stories through drama.

Several times, the authors bring up a program they created with grant aid called “Singing to the Monster.” This program clearly illustrates what they love above all: using dramatized stories to explore and discuss emotions. What worries me about their technique, however, is it does not seem readily accessible to a classroom teacher. I scribbled in the margin of page 30 (of this 165 page book):

“There is a lot of initial exposition in this book but little promise that it will teach me how to lead these sessions. If I had no idea how to lead drama, I would be pretty scared right about now.”

Let me emphasize that little note up there: as an experienced theatre teacher and early childhood educator, I would be very nervous about trying these extended dramatic adventures. They last for 3-5 sessions (that’s 20 minutes a day for three to five days!). And in each session there are multiple props, tricky transitions within the space, and potentially complicated emotional responses. Personally, I would want an expert drama therapist to conduct these sessions with my students along with the help of aids, and that’s coming from someone who is not shy about doing challenging work with children.

Teachers are frequently just as shy about performing as students. The Dramatic Difference is a wonderful resource for experienced drama teachers who want to take their story telling in a new direction or are designing artist-in-residence programs for preschools. But, if you’re new to including drama in your curriculum, you’ll be better off looking for alternative simpler resources.

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