Celebrating Hallowe’en with children: should we or shouldn’t we?

Halloween seems to divide opinion more than any other festival. I think it’s true that there are a lot more families on the ‘pro’ side – most people I know celebrated in some way: dressing up, going to a party, or trick-and-treating.

However, as a drama teacher who comes into contact with lots of different families, I’m aware that there are many parents who really don’t like the idea of Hallowe’en, either because their children are frightened of the ghosts, ghouls and goblins, or for religious reasons. We need to be sensitive to this and so we don’t really mention Hallowe’en in our regular classes. Some children obviously bring it up and want to talk about it, and that’s fine, but we don’t do a special Hallowe’en session or anything like that. It would seem very unfair to parents if they had to keep their children away from a class that they had paid for.

As well as our regular weekly sessions we also run drama workshops during the school holidays, and I’ve made the decision that every other we will use the October half term break to run a Hallowe’en drama workshop. I make sure that I mention this extensively in all our promotional materials, so that families who don’t like this festival know that they should stay away! This year we did a Spooky Drama and Craft Workshop for 3 full days. Children were encouraged to dress up; we made spiders, bats and ghosts in our craft sessions; we told spooky stories, made potions, and invited parents to a brilliant Monster Party for the final session so they could see some of the ideas that the children had come up with. Everyone had a great time!

It was watching the children during the final session that prompted me to write this blog post. It is important to say that at our Hallowe’en drama sessions we don’t write a script for the children. We use their ideas to create a story or scene. We recognize that the ideas that come up might be frightening, and so we don’t want to impose anything on a young child (our age range this time was 5 to 8 years). But drama can really help children cope with scary imagery like ghosts, zombies, witches and so on. If you become the witch, then… well you can’t be frightened of yourself, can you?

The other thing I need to point out is that we are very clear with the children that demons, zombies and bug-eyed monsters do not really exist. They are scary characters in stories but they are not out there in the real world. I appreciate that some adults may not agree with this, but those are probably the same families who wouldn’t send their children to a Hallowe’en workshop!

Anyway, one of the activities during the informal presentation for parents was ‘Making a Potion’ – the children had to choose an ingredient to put into the witch’s cauldron. They came up with some hideous ideas: eyeballs, fingernails, dead animals, one boy even said ‘a dead boy’s arm’ – pretty horrible stuff. But my personal feeling is that if young children are in a safe and supportive environment where they can express themselves freely and without judgment, and where they have a sense of ownership over the material, then they can use drama as way to face up to their fears and get control over them. And also have lots of fun!

I would love to hear what you think about Hallowe’en! Do you celebrate and if so did you have fun this year? Does your child get scared during Hallowe’en and if so what can you say to help them? My advice is always to encourage communication – talking about our fears to someone we trust is always better than bottling them up.

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When is a good age to start taking LAMDA exams?

For those who are unfamiliar with LAMDA exams, they are graded examinations in Speech and Drama. Subjects include Acting, Public Speaking, Devising Drama, Speaking Verse and Prose, Musical Theatre and more… Students can prepare for these nationally accredited exams in much the same way that they prepare for music or ballet exams. We operate a private centre and every December LAMDA send examiners to our site in North London to assess our students. The vast majority of our students spend the Autumn Term preparing to take a LAMDA exam in a subject of their choice. You can find more information at the LAMDA Exams website.

Last year our youngest student to take an exam was five years old. It was her first exam of any kind. She had to learn a short poem off by heart and bring in a favourite toy to talk about with the examiner. Her exam lasted ten minutes, and although she was a little nervous at the start, she came out grinning.

Our oldest student was also taking a LAMDA exam for the first time. He was eighteen and in his first year at university. He took a Grade 8 exam in Speaking in Public. He had to prepare two contrasting speeches, one political and the other on a contrasting topic of his choice. He also had to produce an impromptu three-minute speech on a subject given to him fifteen minutes before the exam. Following his speeches, he had an in-depth discussion with the examiner on different speech styles, vocal modulation and the use of visual aids when speaking in public.

These were just two of nearly one hundred students taking exams last year, but it is interesting that both the youngest and oldest of our students were taking LAMDA exams for the first time. And really that should indicate that the answer to the question at the top of the page (how typical) is, “Well, that depends…”

Age is not the most important factor when deciding whether or not to take a LAMDA exam for the first time. We have over a 150 students taking exams in December 2012. They range in age from five to eighteen and all have very different reasons for taking exams. One boy we teach has some special educational needs and he struggles at school. His mother loves the boost in self-esteem he experiences every time he does well in an exam. A 14-year-old girl that I have been teaching since she was four years old takes her acting classes very seriously and is considering a career in the profession. For her, doing well at LAMDA Acting exams gives her a sense of progression each year, and the knowledge that an objective examiner rates her just as highly as her teacher. Other students are motivated by the UCAS points that are awarded with the higher level exams, which can be useful when applying for university places. For our younger students it is often an experience that falls outside the usual range: walking into a room and reciting a poem to a stranger. If they are well prepared then it gives their confidence a boost – it is something else that they ‘can do’, and as a result they are more likely to volunteer for class assemblies, audition for leading roles in school plays and so on.

But ultimately it comes down to this: life is not an endless rehearsal. There are times when you have to give an account of yourself: job interviews, work presentations, auditions, wedding speeches are some examples. A LAMDA Examination is one way of preparing for these moments. We could do all the work involved in preparing for an exam (clarity of diction, breathing technique, projection, inhabiting a character, mime skills, researching a speech etc) without the actual exam at the end. But the sense of a goal, a point at which the work must be presented, motivates our students and raises standards.

You may be interested to learn that the university student I mentioned had previously suffered from a stammer. His reason for taking the exam was to prove to himself that this was something from which he had fully recovered. I was delighted that he achieved a Distinction, the highest possible grade.

Our youngest student also got a Distinction, and is now busy preparing for her second LAMDA Exam.

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Welcome to The Playing Space blog!

In case you don’t know anything about The Playing Space, here’s a summary of what we do:

  • after-school and weekend speech and drama classes at our studio
  • extra-curricular drama clubs in schools
  • one-off workshops in schools to support regular teaching
  • school-holiday drama clubs
  • youth theatre productions
  • pre-school drama sessions
  • birthday parties
  • teacher training
  • resource packs for teachers, including original scripts and activities

Why have I started a blog?

It occurred to me that many of the emails I write in response to questions from parents of our students would be of wider interest.

For instance, I had a question earlier today from the mum of one of our youngest students. She wasn’t sure whether her daughter should take a LAMDA speech and drama exam this year or wait until next year. I thought carefully about the pros and cons and wrote a considered response.

I’m sure there are many parents out there, not just of our own students, who are wondering whether speech and drama exams, or even exams in general, are of benefit to their children and teenagers. Having run a successful private LAMDA examination centre for a decade, I’ve encountered a great many interesting and unique situations. Therefore, I feel I can speak with some authority on this subject. In case my reflections are valuable to other parents, I wanted to send them out into the world – and a blog post seems the best way of doing this.

Of course, I won’t just be talking about examinations. (However, that will be the subject of one of my first posts: it’s on my mind at the moment, as we have over 150 students sitting exams in December.) There are several subjects about which I am regularly asked to give advice, and I plan to share my thoughts on all of them. Questions I am often asked include: Should my confident and talented child get an agent? What’s the difference between a stage school and a speech and drama class? Why doesn’t my child do drama at school? What’s the best way to organise a birthday party? And there are many more besides.

If there are any topics you’d like to see covered, please comment below; and please share this blog with anyone out there who you think will be interested in what I have to say.

Thanks for your interest. I hope that this blog and all those to come will prove useful and valuable.

Gabi

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