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From imaginary situations like monsters lurking in the dark, to facing real-life ones such as getting a haircut or learning to make friends, feeling fearful or anxious is a natural response for children as they go through different stages in their lives.
To address the unease young ones may have with potentially daunting situations, many adults have come to rely on reading books as well as role-playing situations with children.
Others find that bringing children to a theatre show might be another way of acknowledging and working through their fears, by offering a different perspective to the experience.
Here are five reasons why parents and educators think theatre for young audiences is a useful way to help kids feel braver about facing the world they live in.
Watching a story unfold makes a lasting impression on young minds, and theatre is a safe space to explore something new. Seeing stories played out in a positive way is one good way to show children the situation might not be as scary as they had imagined.
Sarah Tan, a senior teacher from the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore (CPAS), who has had experience bringing children with special needs to watch plays, strongly believes that seeing can demystify an experience, making it less intimidating than if the child’s imagination were to run wild.
“When they see, for example, a visit to the dentist, acted out in a non-threatening way, they see that the machine is not so scary after all,” she said.
In a PLAYtime! production, The Dragon’s Dentist, the protagonist is a dentist for a dragon with dental woes, and finding out more about what a dentist does sheds light on what may be a scary situation for some children.
Sarah shared that watching a scene come to life may just be the positive reinforcement children need to overcome their fears.
Theatre can also help children with expressing their emotions.
By introducing them to a range of behaviours, exposing them to and exploring various situations through encounters with the characters, themes, and storyline, they may be able to relate to the situation and recognise their own reactions through it.
This gives them the opportunity to work with their parents or teachers on an appropriate reaction when a similar situation arises.
Yasmira Johan, principal of Star Learners @ CCK Sports Childcare Centre, said many children learn social norms from what they have watched. “They see how emotions are expressed. This may lead to them regulating their emotions, helping them with their social skills.”
For example, a PLAYtime! production, Us, held in August 2019, deals with emotions like jealousy, loneliness, and kindness as the children work through the dynamics of a new friendship, a situation young ones may very well find themselves in.
Teo Swee Shang, mum of three kids aged 2 to 6, agrees that children can get inspired when they see how the characters in a show handle difficult situations or experiences.
“This helps them see that there are alternative ways to manage themselves if they are in a similar position,” she added.
Children learn through modelling and observation. They are impressionable and often pick up behavioural traits by watching others.
Selena Tay, who has three kids aged 2 to 11, shared that she selects shows that are in line with the messages she wants her children to receive. She believes that theatre is one way to overcome one’s fear especially when it is portrayed in a fun manner.
“It helps if there are light-hearted dialogues that make them laugh and forget the fear,” she said. “Another way is if the experience is acted by a younger actor. They may think ‘if the younger actor can do it, so can I.’”
In Shaggy and the Trims, another PLAYtime! production held in May 2019, children are immersed in the life of the protagonist who is frightened of having his hair cut and has never had a haircut.
“If a child watched a theatre show that portrayed positive ways of handling ‘intimidating’ experiences, he can be motivated to emulate the character,” Selena shared.
The element of interactivity in some of theatre productions encourages children to get involved and in turn, takes away some of the unfamiliarity.
Parents and educators alike say they like productions with interaction because children get more out of what they watch when they are involved. So it means that messages in the play stay with the child long after the show is over.
A typical PLAYtime! production also encourages children to be active participants rather than to sit in silence. In The Dragon’s Dentist, children help the dentist get rid of plaque in the dragon’s mouth and pull out a rotten tooth that has been causing the creature a lot of pain.
Selena said: “I believe children retain the values better when they participate. It is also a different and effective form of learning involving their senses.”
While some shows deal with fears or anxieties directly, others help indirectly by addressing fears that arise from a lack of understanding or exposure.
Octoburst!, a children’s arts festival at Esplanade that takes place every October over Children's Day, regularly presents theatre productions that tackle difficult topics in a child-friendly way.
Something Very Far Away by Unicorn Theatre, presented at Octoburst! in 2014, explored the topic of love, loss, and death through puppetry. It allowed older kids to empathise with the characters and gave parents an opening to start a conversation about loss.
Another production, A Square World by artist Daryl Beeton in 2018, centred around the topic of those who are differently-abled, and gave an opportunity to children and their parents to address misconceptions and the lack of empathy children may have for those different from them.
Swee Shang, who brought her children to watch A Square World, said: “Seeing my kids break down the barrier and get closer to the actor on the wheelchair for the interactive portion was priceless.”
In the safe space of the theatre, enlightenment can be achieved through questions, empathy and even laughter. It may just be the opportunity educators and parents need to help children deal with situations that are strange and unfamiliar.
Jane Ng is a former journalist who covered lifestyle, family and education stories. She currently writes a parenting column for The Straits Times and does consulting and writing work for private and government organisations.