Creative drama practitioner Nellie McCaslin asserts that, “most children love moving their bodies and discovering ways of exploring a space.” From September-December 2015, Ashley Laverty and I implemented a Yogi Bears, a yoga and drama program that strived to increase participants’ self esteem, expand their emotional well-being, and create a positive and fun environment twice a week for 12 weeks. Yogi Bears incorporated a diverse range of topics, generally not discussed in the classroom, like meditation, mindfulness and gratitude. Many sessions included mindful art projects, such as coloring mandalas, creating beaded gratitude bracelets, or designing meditation bottles with oil, water and food coloring. But, most of all, we promised a fun learning environment where the 4-5 year old children could move their bodies and express their unique selves. We strived to use creative movement in a way that allowed students to express themselves in a free and fun way. Fun. But fun for whom? Fun at what cost?
Both yoga and creative drama have numerous and thoroughly touted benefits. Rather than emphasizing performance and product, creative drama encourages a process-centered form of drama and the freedom to express oneself. Likewise, the practice of yoga encourages participants to stay in the present moment rather than focusing on the end result. Both can foster safe environments for physical, social and emotional growth. In regard to children, yoga and creative drama both emphasize mental flexibility and mind/body connection.
With Yogi Bears, we hoped to empower students with tools to experience new ways of coping with and expressing their unique selves. We encouraged students to participate, but did not force them. If a child chose to lie down on their mat during a yoga warm up, we allowed it, though always inviting them to join us when they were ready. We facilitated many student-driven activities: from encouraging the child to lead the class in a yoga flow; to inviting students to create their own ‘cat,’ ‘tree,’ or ‘car’ yoga poses.
But…what happens once you’ve built a classroom structured around free exploration and increasing awareness and the kids are…wild? Not in control of their bodies in space? Acting the opposite way as you planned and hoped? Is it more important to control, or allow for natural consequences? And how could we create a class centered on movement that honors the needs of all students — from the child who wanted to run in circles to the child who chose to lay in the ‘cool down corner’ the entire class period?
There may be many reasons why a yoga and creative drama class with kindergartners is an uphill battle, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an incredibly worthwhile challenge. In relation to Erik Erikson’s psychosocial developmental stages, the young students with whom we were working were moving through the initiative versus guilt stage. It is in this stage, that a typical child develops their sense of self-worth and self-esteem through the skills and competencies honed through experiential play. As in any stage of development, the children fell on a wide spectrum of comfort with their desire to move and play in creative ways. For example, one boy did not want to participate unless it was a highly structured game in which the risks for making a “mistake” were very low. On the other end, a girl who would take the most minor of directions as an excuse for unbridled running and hurdling of her body through space.
In order to create safety within this experiential stage, we found a need to create more structure. Most of the students seemed to really, really, really enjoy running around and touching each other. There was a lot of hugging, grabbing, and, almost everyday, someone who was running around tripped over himself or another student. As we evaluated our pedagogical approach of fun and student-centered movement exploration, it became very clear that we needed to set clear expectations. We instituted two rules in Yogi Bears, both strictly upheld by the school: 1. No running; 2. No touching other students. While they weren’t a catchall, these rules seemed to allow for regulation without the punitive consequences of shame and guilt — a win in aiding psychosocial development.
On class days where we felt really good about how our class went, we wondered if our students felt the same. Is it more fun for the students to listen to the rules and have a controlled classroom? Or is it way more fun for them to feel out of control? Is there joy in subverting the rules? Does movement have to be uncontrolled and wild to feel good?
We tried to create a safe classroom environment where we could simulate spontaneous “out of control” fun, but in a controlled manner – a paradox to be sure. We facilitated activities with running and freezing; dancing and balancing; roaring or singing very loudly. Ultimately, we never found a satisfactory answer to our questions. As the semester went on, however, our relationship with the students strengthened and there were fewer reminders of the rules. We questioned our own movement practices, and pedagogy – in my mind, a true indication of any successful endeavor. By the end of our twelve weeks, our classes had became calmer, more productive and yes, it seemed that everyone, including us, had more fun.