Cap Selling Never Gets Old

I took a trip down memory lane this week as a I sifted through old family photos and slides, scanned in recent years to prevent their permanent decay.

I was delighted to find this photo, circa 1982

children doing caps for sale

Children at The Learning Community Day School. Taught by Ms. Shirley Webber


I hope you recognize the book in the teacher’s hand.  It’s Caps for Sale, my favorite book for PictureBook Plays!  I’m not in this photo, but some of my contemporaries are.  The teacher is Ms. Shirley Webber.  A magnificent teacher who is still a good family friend.

But wait, it gets better.

Here’s another photo I have lying around, circa 2002

Caps for Sale at Chicago Children's Museum

Children at The Chicago Children's Museum. Taught by SerahRose Roth.


In the first story, the cap sellers have just woken up to discover their hats are being worn by monkeys.  In the second photo, the monkeys are imitating the cap sellers in their frustration, “tsk, tsk, tsk!”

The similarities are uncanny.

Both images illustrate something very important about process-oriented theatre:  Children stand where they stand, and face where they face.  It’s not about “always face the audience” and “stand where your told.”  It’s about telling the story with your bodies and faces.

In the first image, you can see the children playing the cap sellers (on the right hand side) acting surprised at their discovery.  The children on the left are waiting for their turn, but still enjoying the cap sellers.  You can see their interested smiles.  In the second image the monkeys (on the right hand side) are tsk-ing.  You can see one child enjoying herself so much she probably is about to burst out laughing.  The girl next to her is ‘checking in,’ an important developmental phase since young children transition back and forth between “imitative learning styles” and “exploratory learning styles.”  [Those are my quotes. I have no idea if those are real terms.  But they make a lot of sense.]   The littlest cap seller probably spent most of her time watching and imitating (she looks about 2), the one in the middle is already ready to throw her hat to the ground, and the boy on the end is in a joyful spectator moment.  He’s half way between audience and actor.  Also a good place to be.

Every child is doing something different.  Every child is where he or she needs to be to tell the story in that moment.  The performance can never be repeated.

Lastly, it’s in a casual setting.  There’s no pressure to be heard on a big stage, or ‘get your lines right’ or smile when you curtsy.  They’re watching, listening, reacting, imitating, exploring, and–quite simply–telling a story.

If you’ve never read Caps for Sale, now’s the time to head to your local library.

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Dot & Ziggy in Chicago

I’ve been sitting on a couple of articles, waiting for the perfect time to respond.  Actually, no, there is no perfect time….I’ve been waiting to figure out how to formulate a response to two very different articles about small children and theatre.

Here is the gist in a nutshell:

  • Article 1 – why spend $15 to take your toddler to a play when you can blow bubbles at home?
  • Article 2 – toddlers are awesome audience members; theatre for early childhood is an expanding art form


Both published in highly read and acclaimed publications.

Not all Plays are Equal

If you really want to find a “children’s play” to go to, you can find one.  But a lot of it is not appropriately created.  (Thus the reference to blowing bubbles at home.) They treat your children as second best citizens who should be entertained by weird slapstick, bad lip-synching, and bored actors.  But, there is also a lot of really great children’s theatre.  In fact, there is more and more fantastic theatre geared to children under 5 and performed by actors who are trained to work with the youngest audience members and their caregivers.  Young children are respected as audience members who appreciate good theatre as much as the next adult (including lap-sitters, toddlers following actors, and 4 year olds talking back).  This is all part of the magic, fun, benefits, and opportunities of theatre created especially for the youngest among us.

Dot & Ziggy

Dot & Ziggy came on to my radar sometime last week.  It was one of those moments that I felt suddenly sad that I no longer live in Chicago.  It’s a city brimming with new theatre.  On top of that, Dot & Ziggy is being staged a Victory Gardens Theatre that holds a special place in my heart as a small, comfortable space that offered me a work-study home so I could take classes along with my first Chicago audition (which I bombed, by the way) and many more auditions after that.

Here’s a review by a Chicago parent. This is the most telling,

For me, the truest test was if this interactive play could captivate my 22 month old for any length of time.

We think toddlers have no attention span.  We think they’re not ready for imaginative play.  We think they’re still babies who are unexpectedly mobile.  In fact, toddlers, when treated as respected audience members who have their own likes, dislikes, fears, joys, and expectations, are engaged and focused individuals.

Obviously, I’m not in a position to go see Dot & Ziggy myself.  But if you’re in the area, take your child.  And then tell me how it went.  And, like ParentSphere who wrote about her experience: expect to have fun, but plan on being flexible.  You may be able to sit through a play you don’t love while you’re dreaming of dinner just to see what happens, but your toddler won’t.

As for those articles I mentioned earlier, no worries, I’ll get there eventually and I promise you won’t be disappointed.


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Spontaneous Performance

Our days feel like one commitment after another with every minute allotted for something pressing or precious. What happens if we take advantage of the unexpected unscheduled moments?  Where will that lead our teaching?  Where will that lead our children?

Today–the most gorgeous of sunny spring days in weeks–I took my over-scheduled daughter to school.  She is 4 and a half, creative, independent, driven…and hates schedules.

We pulled into a parking spot right on time.  I had about five minutes to get her out of the car along with her car seat and into school on time.


The sun was shining and I saw the tap of her toes on the back of the seat.  Instead of pulling the key from the ignition, I turned the music up and unclipped her from her seat, opening the car doors so the music cascaded out to meet the sun.  There we were, in a parking lot, dancing to Irish fiddling simply because we could.  We had three extra minutes so why not?

We both walked into school with our toes still tapping and a smile across our faces.

All because we gave ourselves three minutes of unscheduled artistic creation.  We moved our bodies in the sunlight.  She didn’t see the grimaces of stressed parents as they drove by to drop off their own children.  She didn’t see the crumbs under the car seat or my pile of work papers in the front seat.  She didn’t see the foolishness of dancing in a parking space.  She saw the creative moment, and took it for her own.

If a three minute creative dance break can work wonders for just one child and mother, what can it do in an entire classroom?  Or an office?  Or your lunch room?  You tell me.

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To the Ladies of Savannah

You might not miss us, but we miss you.  Actually, we miss your weather.  After a really nice 60+ degree break, we’re back dodging snow storms.  As I write this, it is still snowing and hailing after two days of new snow, and we’ve got another one coming in on Saturday.

This one’s for you!

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Thank You SECA

We had a great time presenting at SECA (Southern Early Childhood Conference) today in Savannah, Georgia.

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We’re Going to Savannah in 2011!

Southern Early Childhood Association just told us that we’ll be heading to Savannah, Georgia in January of 2010 to present at their conference: Moving and Playing, Keeping Southern Children Healthy and Happy.

Preschool Players:  Honoring Creative, Dramatic Choices in the Preschool Classroom will be presented in the afternoon on Friday, January 28th.

We are so excited to have the opportunity to share our theatrical pedagogy with ECE teachers in the South.  And, SerahRose has never been to Georgia so we’ll be doing some sight seeing too!

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Research Dearth

First of all, let me proclaim how much I adore the word dearth.  In my head, it should mean “abundance” but in actuality, it means scarcity.  So, when I have the chance to use it, it seems to possess a bizarre personal double meaning that makes it all the powerful.  For me, at least.  Plus it’s fun to say.

Second, let’s talk about this Research Dearth.

One of the challenging parts of consulting about theatre with young children is not the consulting itself, but the dearth of substantial research about the topic.  We are expected, after all, to support our assumptions not just with our practices and working knowledge, but with the theory and statistics.  Expect, of course, they don’t really exist in this field.

Sure, there’s research about the use of theatre with adults, teens, and youths.  There’s even research about whether being involved in theatre (or any art, for that matter) makes them smarter or better people.  There’s research about young children and their developmental process and the joy they receive from the arts, the increased math potential from listening to music (thank you Little Einstein for taking that concept overboard and poisoning us with poor imitations of the real thing).  What doesn’t exist is research specifically correlating the developmental process of young children and their participation in process-oriented theatre arts.  Okay, that’s a little white lie, there’s some out there, but it’s really really hard to find and exists as one-liners in dense multi-chapter studies.

I’ve got this dearth particularly in mind today as I work my way through Theatre, Education, and the Making of Meanings by Anthony Jackson.  This text is not about young children, nor is it even about process-oriented theatre.  But it does offer some truly interesting perspective about the development of educational theatre over history, the progress of its theories, and the ongoing dichotomy between the “art” of educational theatre arts and the “education” of educational theatre arts.

I’ll keep you posted as I keep on (it’s rather dry so who knows how long it’ll take me!) but here’s my favorite quote so far.  It happens to be from Brecht, not the author of this text:

the contrast between learning and amusing oneself is not laid down by divine rule;…theatre remains theatre, even when it is instructive theatre, and in so far as it is good theatre it will amuse.

I think we educators of young children can concur…the best learning does indeed take place when learning is a joy.

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Taking Up Space

I love the feeling of space when I’m feeling expansive.

I love the feeling of enclosure when I’m feeling comforted.

This would be why sad children seek hugs, crawl under tables, and sleep well in small spaces.  This would also explain why gyms, fields, and hallways are so conducive to running.

I was reminded of this yesterday at Boston Children’s Museum.  It’s huge and very runnable.

I used to work there full-time and returned as a consultant last year to work with an arts educator and several of her floor staff on techniques for guiding dramatic play in their children’s theater.  They have a wonderful children’s theater program as part of the museum.  15-20 minutes interactive children’s plays are performed multiple times a day.  They are written for young audiences but have a great sense of style and possess all the goodies of good live children’s theater: lights, sound, solid scripts and characters, a safe space, and enthusiastic acting.

When I was an employee, the theater was left open to the public in between shows.  Children could come into the space, play at theater using set pieces, costumes, and lights.  Several times a week, I also  ran guided drop-in programming for children and families.  The new stage, just designed and installed a few years ago, also includes a pretend box office.  I was excited to share all this with my daughter who having just performed in her first dance recital and visited me at the theater for pre-show of my latest production is very interested in the performing arts.

We arrived after lunch only to discover we had missed the shows for the day and the space was not open for free play.  Not open at all.  And the counter workers’ answer implied that my question about it being open for free play was absurd because it was never open for free play.

Who knows why this is so, but it is certainly a loss to the children of Boston.

However, as I followed Do-Bug through the other very expansive exhibits, watched her engrossed for an hour in Peep’s World and watched her run fast down the wide inviting halls, I thought back to my experiences teaching on KidStage and how challenging it might feel as a member of their Education Team to guide a group of unknown children through an activity in a space that invites expanding.  Because that really is a challenge: to retain the focus of children in a space that simply begs for them to run, skip, and jump.  I know it can be done; I’ve done it.  That’s not to say it’s easy.

And what about all the teachers who want to introduce theatre to their preschoolers?

If large spaces invite the running of feet and the tossing of objects, then smaller spaces invite precision.  Precision of movement, voice, and choices.

So, forgo the idea of bringing your children to the gym or on to the elementary school stage for their first time doing a theatre activity.  Stay in the confines of your classroom, a safe space where they are comforted.  Invite them to be precise in their choices.

And when you decide to create your own stage inside your classroom, make it small.  3 feet by 3 feet is ample room for two children to put on a play.  If you have children with mobility differences, make it just big enough for them to turn around, move a foot or two, and then move back.

Because although it feels good and can be easier to take up space in a large space, it is  safer, more productive, and set your children up for success to learn to take up space well in a small space.

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Budget Theatre-Going

I suppose in a country where going to a play on Broadway can cost a couple hundred dollars a ticket, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the neighborhood children’s theatres are following in their footsteps with tickets ranging from about $20-$35.   Even here, in what feels like the middle of nowhere New Hampshire, if I take Do-Bug to the local kid’s theatre (this is performed by children, not adults) her ticket is $17.  Mine is another $25.  And there’s no guarantee she’ll make it through the first act.  The best luck  I had this year was when her babysitter performed in The Pajama Game at her high school and it only cost me $10 a ticket.  That’s a steal!  And she had the added bonus of getting to greet her babysitter after the show and get introduced to the rest of the cast.  So, how, exactly do you expose your child to quality theatre on a budget?

Wait until summer!  Which just happens to be right about now.

Summer: when every other park in the country has free Shakespeare and puppet shows.  Children love watching Shakespeare outside.  Of course a lot of it swims right over their heads, but it’s a fantastic introduction to actors performing on stage in front of an audience.  And they will enjoy themselves even if they (and you) don’t follow the whole story.  Plus, the lights won’t go out which cuts down on the fear factor and if you get hungry for ice cream or too tired to finish the show, you can get up and leave and no one will blink twice.  It’s a win-win situation.

So if the cost of theatre tickets would normally send you to the library, now’s the time to scour the local newspaper for free outdoor performances.

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Stage Mother

I’m about to put my own child through an experience that I would never wish on a three year old: a full blown dance recital.  I’m not entirely sure how I, a perfectly reasonable and well-informed children’s theatre specialist, managed to get suckered in to it.  Maybe because I’m as susceptible as the next proud parent: I want to see my child be a star.  I want to see her admired. I want to see her succeed. But, at what cost?

Let me back track for a moment:

Do-Bug loves to dance.  So, just after she started school in the fall, I signed her up for tap dance. I purposefully chose both a school and a dance-style that is not considered pre-professional.  Sure, their classes are structured, they have good teachers, and no doubt many of their students go on to continue dance in their adult lives. But they’re not a training ground for the next prima-ballerina.  I wanted Do-Bug to have the chance to just have fun.  She is only three, after all.

My original plan to keep her out of the recital was foiled by the size of the class: there are only five of them. So I caved to my own private dreams of stardom before I even tried to put my foot down.

Now we own a $75 sequined blue tutu which she will wear only once on stage and I waited in line for 2 hours to buy tickets for the family ($20 a pop!).

As it turns out, even those of us who think we know better cave to the delights of creating super-stars. We want our kids to shine, to dazzle. But at what cost?

Two weeks ago, I dressed her up in her costume and hustled her off to the studio for photo-call.   I was ill-prepared to wait so after an hour of it, we’d both had it.  We were hot, tired, thirsty and hungry.  As her classmates were finally ushered into the studio for their photos, our relief became a meltdown.  The tears started and never stopped.  We took off the costume and left in a hurry without having her picture taken.  We wanted out.  We were not having fun.  We were both embarrassed and hungry and miserable.   We were there for fun and didn’t have any.

We won’t make that mistake again.

At three, it’s not about dazzling.  At three, you dazzle no matter what.  Because that’s what three year-olds do.  At three, it’s about fun and being in control of your own destiny.

So, it was with great relief that after her class this week–A tricky class being done in a larger room (closer in size to the actual stage) with more children (the bigger ballerinas who share their dance number)–that her teacher took the time to say “The most important thing is what? Having fun.”

So, in two weeks time, when I am faced with a long week of late-night rehearsals for a very small child, I will pull out the goldfish, the playdough, and the ponies, and we will sit and have fun while we wait for her turn to tap her way through the limelight.

And if she chooses to stand in the wings out of fear, I will still be proud and tell her I love her.  If she chooses to get on stage and forgets all her steps, I will still be proud and tell her I love her.  If she walks into the spotlight and starts tapping her tiny feet to her own singular rhythm, I will still be proud and tell her I love her.  It’s her time to choose, and I will support that with the best of my stage mothering ability.

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