Student studying with notebook and laptop.
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If you start talking about performing arts education you will likely get a number of people riled up. Performing arts education is a widely debated topic in North America, and for good reason; schools across the continent are being stripped of performing arts education programs in favor of science and technology driven course-loads. The performing arts can shape students in ways that reading a play or learning the Pythagorean theorem can’t.


Recent Study: University of Arkansas, 2014

Most recently, research conducted by the University of Arkansas originally published in Education Nextsuggests that field trips to live theater not only enhance students’ literary knowledge of the play, but also increase their tolerance level and their ability to empathize with others.

The test sample included 670 students from 49 different school groups, who were then organized into 24 matched groups based on the similarity of grade level, demographics and the type of class that they applied through (drama, English, other). Selected through a lottery system, the Treatment Students attended live theater performances of Hamlet or A Christmas Carol and the Control Students read the play in class or watched a movie of the play.

Close-up of eye
CC Image by Helga Birna

Researchers administered surveys and the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET) approximately six weeks after the performances were viewed and found that the Treatment Students improved their knowledge of the plays by a very large margin. For example, more than 94% of the treatment group knew that Hamlet’s Ophelia drowns, compared to only 62% of the control group.

Students in the treatment group also scored significantly higher on the RMET test. While the control group scored well by correctly identifying emotions portrayed in photographs of eyes 71% of the time, the treatment group identified emotions correctly 73.4% of the time. This doesn’t sound like much, but the difference between these two scores actually translates into an increase of almost one quarter of the standard deviation!

What is the Research Telling Us?

Professor of Education Reform and lead on the University of Arkansas study, Jay Greene, sums it up pretty clearly:

“What we determined from this research is that seeing live theater produced positive effects that reading a play or watching a movie of the play does not produce. Plays are meant to be seen performed live. You can’t always take your kids to a play but if you can, you should. The story can be conveyed in a movie, but it doesn’t engage the viewer in the same way.”

The timeline for the survey and RMET test completion enforces and solidifies the belief that attending live performances has a lasting, long-term effect on the viewer.

CC Image by Bahman Farzad
CC Image by Bahman Farzad

Jay Greene puts it very simply: “Culturally enriching field trips matter.”

Visiting Live Theatre Performances with Children and Young People

Whether it’s on a field trip or with your family, a trip to a live performance is a wonderfully enriching experience for everyone involved. If you are planning on visiting a live theatre performance (we hope you are!) your best bet for model behavior is to prepare in advance. Here are a few tips for a successful trip to the theatre:

  • Get in touch with the venue you plan on visiting. This is especially helpful for school field trips, because many organizations already have education programs in place and will be able to help you find a suitable performance to attend.
  • Be sure to explain theatre etiquette – this is likely very new to most of the children so have them practice with you in advance.
  • Engage in open-ended discussion after the performance. Encourage the children to express how the performance made them feel.
Photos from a friday morning rehearsal.
CC Image by Fort Meade

Check out this PDF by The Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts for more tips surrounding your upcoming visit to the theatre.



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