This week my husband and I took our three year-old son up to 42nd Street for his first play. The play, White, was put on by the New Victory Theater, a theater company with programming aimed at children and their families. The play, forty minutes long, featured a simple whimsically designed set full of birdhouses, all white. The two characters, Cotton and Wrinkle, care for their birdhouses and go through the rituals of their day keeping everything orderly and white, until one day, color emerges. The play ends with a burst of colorful confetti into the audience and the cast members talking with all the children about their favorite colors.
When I take my son to the movies (a series at a local Brooklyn theater, Big Movies for Little Kids) I joke that his attention span is the length of the movie minus ten minutes. I don’t know why this is, but it is generally the formula for his interest. The Muppet Movie minus ten minutes. Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus minus ten minutes. Even with this, at the movies, he gets distracted; he wants to walk around, he wants more popcorn or water or to play with the car that is hidden deep within his backpack. But at the play, he sat on my husband’s lap, totally absorbed and spell bound. He didn’t move. He didn’t fidget.
Whenever state and school budgets come up short, the arts curriculum is generally one of the first things on the chopping block even as studies show that having learning experiences in the arts contributes to academic skills, social and emotional development as well as increases motivational skills. It is through the arts that children learn their cultural heritage and have the ability to experience other cultures. The arts teach creativity, empathy, respect, diversity, and the ability to try new things, self-expression, resourcefulness, and self-direction in addition to a myriad of other things. An education that negates the arts negates humanity and the growth of the individual. An education without the arts fails to teach children the potential of the skills they are learning in school.
On the surface, the play White taught children their colors, and the contrast of an entirely white world with a world full of a spectrum of colors. But within this, children also were given a subtle message of diversity appreciation, an understanding of daily rituals, how people work together and take care of their environment. They also learned rules, how rules work and when those rules don’t represent the greater good, it’s okay to change them.
Yet what I really loved about the play was that it was intelligent. It respected children and valued the culture of children. It began with the premise that children are intelligent and discerning audience members. It assumed they are perceptive and emotionally intelligent and compassionate creatures. My son left the play wanting to see it again. I left with a renewed love of the theater. I also left with a profound appreciation for the theater company’s view that children’s theater is just as important and valid as the theater for their parents. It’s rare in our culture for people to view the experience and intelligence of children as just as valid and important as adults’, but it is. And one way to show our children that we think their experience is just as valid as ours is to value the arts that represent that experience.