The Problem with Games in Drama for Learning

I have been running some training recently with under graduates exploring how drama can be used as a learning tool. I began by putting up a list of elements that I hoped to explore during the session and asked them what they were particularly interested in. Most identified “task orientated not games”. When I asked why the majority spoke about how games were the staple diet of drama workshops and I know what they mean.

For many years my practice consisted of the standard drama for learning set up which usually involves going in to the hall and starting with a name game and then a warm up. The use of games being used here to basically, as far as I can see it, to sell the workshop to the pupils in that “This is fun! Please behave and pay me attention!”. Most of the times the games I see played in this context have no relation to the topic or the theme being explored and actually are focused on teaching and developing core skills in speaking and listening and team work. I’m not saying that I never play games any more. I do IF the remit is to develop performance based skills with a group or to develop a performance. Here the use of SPLAT or whatever it is may in fact prove important to a sense of cohesion within a group, in particular a group that don’t know each other. I suppose what I wanted to say to these students was that that is just one way. You have to think what the focus is. The temptation is, of course, to begin with the hard sell so that the children want to participate but it must, and has to, depend on why you are there. Playing Wink Murder has absolutely, (I believe), no place in a workshop that aims to explore alcohol misuse with a class of ten years olds who have been drinking on the local estate! And of course this raises something else. The children will definitely come out of a games based session saying that it was ‘great’ and that you are ‘ the best teacher ever’ whereas a task orientated, inquiry based approach won’t reap you these rewards. They will come out in a self reflective mode, quiet and thinking. You won’t, (or shouldn’t if you are doing it right), get the adoration that the first style offers. This was a shock when I first began using dramatic inquiry methods as I was used to leaving a school with the kids hanging off me, full of praise but what legacy had I left?

After the demonstrative session, (using lots borrowed from Heathcote!) the main feedback was how surprised the students were that they were ‘engaged’ without beginning with a typical drama game. How their intrigue was developed right from the start. Heathcote talks about a Continuum of Engagement beginning with Attraction moving through to Obsession. How can I attract the pupils to the subject we are exploring? What will hook them in? This will be different for everyone and it is much harder to facilitate as it can be slow and demanding (rather than the 10 minutes warm up game written in the plan!) however it highlights the question about what real ‘engagement’ is. For myself with drama in education it isn’t just behaving, listening and saying “boing” as a clap is passed around a circle. Its about the quiet moments where you can almost see and hear the cogs turning in a child’s mind.

Often drama relies so heavily on a performative element as well. I have witnessed so much practice where children create a still image of a given topic. We sit on the floor facing the group, like an audience, laugh (because James can do a funny accent/movement etc) and then we give feedback consisting of ‘great facial expression’ etc. Yes this is what is required IF we are there to develop performance skills but if we are there to explore issues then what is the point and purpose of creating a still image, showing it back and getting a clap because the focus is on the form rather than the content? It has to come down to questioning skills and more importantly listening skills (and I’m talking about the facilitator!). I’m constantly asking trainee facilitators “Are you getting to the heart of the matter?” We have to remember why we are there.

So for drama for learning (not for product, performance focused work- which I still do by the way!) I don’t take the children in to the hall. I don’t tell them that it is drama. We are learning, exploring and experimenting together around a topic or theme and who knows what we will create!! Games have a place but we must resist the temptation to roll out the old format without creating scaffolds that are based around inquiry tasks allowing each session to be different depending on what is important to the individual group at that time, depending on what intrigues them, bothers them etc. Our job is to create a safe space for this inquiry to happen so begin to get to the heart of the matter!

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