Cops and robbers. Cowboys and Indians. Batman and Robin. House, hospital, dolls. These are just a few of the common games young children play before they graduate to “Halo” and “Call of Duty.” And unlike the rules-based games of adulthood, these early childhood games rely on the creativity, spontaneity, and improvisational skills that are unique to children.
The Jersey City Children’s Theater uses this free and whimsical approach to play to introduce kids to the magical world of drama and the stage. Co-founded last year by artistic director Kathy Hendrickson and Ann Antoshak, a marketing professional who serves as the organization’s executive director, the theater takes what kids do naturally and uses that to create stores for the stage.
Since starting the theater, about 1,000 children have participated in some Children’s Theater program.
Interestingly, while a number of available theater programs concentrate their efforts on teens and pre-teens, the Jersey City Children’s Theater developed a focus on 3 to 7-year-olds “almost by default,” according to Hendrickson.
“When we first got started, we offered after school classes for children 3 through 14. But what happened then was all our classes for the 3 to 7-year-olds just kept filling up,” said Hendrickson, who has a 4-year-old son. “There was just such a demand for classes in that age group that we just sort of evolved into a program that is now primarily for younger children.”
She suspects younger children and their parents like the classes for the same reasons kids like playing cops and robbers, or Batman and Robin.
“Our classes and programs flow from the children’s imagination,” said Hendrickson. “The children create their own stories and use improve and play to present the stories that they create.”
It’s all in the game
Hendrickson and a core faculty staff of five other drama professionals use a technique known as “story theater improvisation games” to spur kids to build their own original dramatic presentations. The emphasis, she stated, is on using games and playtime to get the kids to learn more about their world, while at the same time introducing them to the magic of drama. Boys, she said, have been particularly taken with this approach to theater and play.
“I think it’s because this is a nonacademic outlet that’s not sports. And this kind of play appeals to some boys,” she said.
Hendrickson and the other Jersey City Children’ Theater instructors provide the theater programming at six schools, including four in Jersey City: Hamilton Park Montessori School, the Ethical Community Charter School, the Learning Community Charter School, and Our Lady of Czestochowa School.
The theater’s approach to teaching is, Hendrickson said, meant to enhance the children’s academic performance.
“We know that we all learn differently. What one person learns, say, through explanation someone else learns through demonstration,” Hendrickson noted. “We know that music, for instance, can be used to teach kids math. So, we absolutely see ourselves as serving an important role in the academic success of the children we work with. And right now there is areal void in terms of arts and music and theater in a lot of schools.”
Several studies have shown that music and art can enhance children’s ability to absorb mathematical concepts and develop critical thinking skills. Still, arts programs have been cut to the bone in many school districts and funding for music, art, and theater is always in jeopardy of being cut.
Since starting the theater, about 1,000 children have participated in some Children’s Theater program, with another 2,000 kids who have seen one of the organization’s shows, which Hendrickson calls “presentations” rather than performances.
Based out of the Barrow Mansion on Wayne Street, much of the theater’s work has thus for been concentrated downtown. But Hendrickson and Antoshak hope to change this.
“Our long-term goal is to be more accessible to more students in more neighborhoods throughout Jersey City,” said Hendrickson. “I’d like to have other sites and work with other schools so that a broader range of students have access to this kind of programming.”
Since parents pay a nominal tuition for the theater’s summer camps and other classes, access can be an issue for families who cannot afford the theater’s programs. A few scholarships have been offered, but Hendrickson admitted there is a need for more.
“Our students really thrive, both onstage and off, in the classroom and outside of it. Clearly we’d like to see more children have access to this.”
The Jersey City Children’s Theater will hold four summer camps this month for kids ages 4 through 7. To learn more about these summer camps and the theater’s other programming throughout the year, visit www.jcchildrenstheater.org.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.