Monday, December 14, 2015

Pets at the Pound - Drama Role Play

"We start by locking the children in cages ..."

Before you get the wrong idea and report me for egregious and improper conduct, let me explain the game that my students and I invented for drama class.

My official title is "teacher-librarian", but if you looked at my schedule (this year and in the past), a huge chunk of my time is spent teaching drama and dance. It's a lot of fun. The students have particular activities that they really enjoy doing, and while trying to brainstorm how to do similar but different tasks, the students and I created this role play.

In the Toronto District School Board resource document called Treasures for Teaching and The Treasure Chest, there's a section that explains about role playing with young students. (I'll quote it here when I grab the book from school.) To paraphrase briefly, it encourages teachers to play pretend along with their students.
(ETA Pages 19-24 of Treasures for Teaching: Story, Drama and Dance in the Primary Classroom (3rd Edition) describes Dramatic Play as "pretend play, in which children become different characters in different times and places having different experiences." It also says "The world of dramatic play is the world of pretend, where all things are possible. In this domain of make-believe, children construct people, places, objects and events. They draw upon real-life experiences, everyday observations, and their favourite stories to shape their dramas. Children step into various roles, exploring multiple points of view, which teaches them to imagine how another thinks and feels.")

The students love playing "Toy Store", an activity I borrowed from the days when my own daughter took drama classes at The Drama Workshop on Yonge Street. In this scenario, the children are toys that come to life when the toy store owner (played by an adult) isn't watching. The students at my school go absolutely bananas when they play it. There's plenty of creative planning that goes on "between the scenes". We talk about what the toy store owner could do to try and discover why her toys are always off the shelves when she returns from a break. The students make great suggestions, and they also come up with great suggestions for how the toys can stay undetected. (For instance, after one conversation, the toy store owner installed security cameras all around the store. When the toys came to life after the toy store owner left for the day, they immediately smashed all the cameras or turned them so they'd film the wall instead of the shelves!)

There's only so many times I can play "Toy Store" before I get tired of it. (For the record, the students NEVER get tired of it!) Based on their keen interest in our school library pets, two skinny pigs named Chocolate and Vanilla, I decided to make a new variation of  this type of game by inventing "Pets at the Pound".

Before we played "Pets at the Pound", we had a short talk about what a pound was for animals. We distinguished it from a pet store in several key ways, the main one being that the animals were often strays or turned in by owners who could no longer keep them. The animals in the pound were anxious to have a home. We used chairs as kennels and cages. Students chose whether to be a dog or a cat and stayed in their "cages", hoping that a visitor to the pound would choose them and adopt them.

This game has several unintended advantages.

1) "Main Stage" and "Side Stage" Role Play

Unlike "Toy Store", where all the action is focused on the toy store owner's arrival and departure, there's opportunities for many other things to be happening simultaneously. While the pound employee shows prospective pet owners some of the animals in the cages, other animals are conversing with each other (with barks and meows), while others try to escape their cages and others try very hard to get the attention of humans or other animals.

2) Shared Power Dynamics

Once we played "Pets at the Pound" a couple of times, we passed on roles like the Pound Employee and Potential Pet Owner to the students. The ECE and I went to our cages and pretended to be dogs or cats, while the students wandered around from cage to cage, with their role props (keys for the employee, balls or pretend treats for the visiting humans). They were very good at telling wandering animals to get back in their cages.

3) Common Experience AND New Experience

Most children know about dogs and cats, so even the students who don't speak English could participate, because speaking English wasn't an issue. Yet, there are still experiences they have not yet had that I didn't realize until we played this game. When we play "Pets at the Pound", it gets REALLY loud. One of the SK students said, "Does it really have to be so noisy?"
"Have you ever been to a real pound?" I asked. She hadn't. Perfect - a possible field trip for 2016!

4) Open-Ended Content

I'm always amazed by the directions the students take the role play. One pair of students, pretending to be shopping for a pet, took out a dog and then asked if they could give the dog a bath. This was completely their idea. Others took the dogs for walks, or brushed them.

5) Links to Other Subject Areas

I also teach kindergarten media literacy, and when we had a post-role-play conversation, some of the students talked about how they (as dogs and cats) wish they had been picked but weren't. Perfect moment for empathy! The ECE and I said that this might be how actual animals feel when they are passed over for adoption, and then we brainstormed what could be done to draw attention to the animals. The students said we could make signs and posters. We took a media class to "draw in role" and make posters featuring themselves as a dog or cat, with details (like age, cost, and colour) and orally, they gave reasons for why they would make a good pet for someone.

I'm thinking of writing this description up and sharing it with CODE (Council of Drama and Dance Educators), if they'll have it. It's been a lot of fun and as long as I describe it in a way that doesn't make it sound like I'm locking children up in cages for jollies, I'll be safe and we'll keep playing.

ETA: Here are some photos of one class playing "Pets at the Pound". Student faces have been covered to protect privacy.

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