A teaching role: How theater enhances academic ability, performance in youths

Published: Monday, March 17 2014 12:15 p.m. MDT

Young actors participate in a performance of University of Utah Youth Theatre's "Crow and Weasel."

University of Utah Youth Theatre

Editor’s note: Part two of a three-part series on theater for young audiences.

Will attending a performance of “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” boost your child’s academic abilities?

No one would argue the importance of literacy or math skills, but study after study has shown that consistent participation in theater and the arts greatly improves academic performance and significantly raises standardized test scores.

The American Alliance for Theatre & Education used data collected by the College Entrance Examination Board to determine that students involved in drama coursework outscored non-arts students on the SAT by an average of 65 points in the verbal component and 34 points in the math component. And the group further determined that drama helps to improve school attendance and reduce high school dropout rates.

The Creative Advocacy Network has reported data that indicate involvement in the arts is linked to higher academic performance and increased standardized test scores.

In recognition of March 20’s World Day of Theatre for Children and Young People, sponsored by the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People and its U.S. affiliate, we asked local theater professionals for their insights on how children benefit academically from theater.

The participants include John D. Newman, Utah Valley University Noorda Theatre Center for Children and Youth director; Ryan Radebaugh, Hale Center Theater Orem theater school director; Kate Rufener, Grand Theatre's Grand Youth coordinator; Penelope Marantz Caywood, University of Utah Youth Theatre artistic director; Teresa Dayley Love, Brigham Young University Theatre for Young Audiences director/writer/producer; and Clin Eaton, Hale Centre Theatre West Valley youth theater instructor.

John D. Newman: Participation in theater and drama improves attendance; increases reading, language and comprehension skills; builds self-esteem; and closes the achievement gap for students of lower socio-economic status. Participation in theater enhances social awareness, pragmatic appropriateness, problem-solving skills and the ability to work and communicate with others. Students with autism spectrum disorders who participate in drama and theater learn critical social skills in a safe and structured environment.

Ryan Radebaugh: Students have gone through our education department and commented on how it has become easier for them to focus in school and follow through with their growing responsibilities. They memorize historical and mathematical facts with greater ease.

Kate Rufener: Theater explores the attachments and connections between “hard” academic skills and a humanities understanding of those skills. From a strictly academic perspective, theater students learn “hard” skills such as physics, spatial reasoning, planning, interpersonal/leadership skills, creation/design, research skills and a host of hands-on mathematics and science requirements. Beyond the academic requirements so popular in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs, students of theater learn how they fit in the world, how their desires for social changes can be enacted, empathy and the importance of self-expression.

Penelope Marantz Caywood: I have seen measurable outcomes resulting from creating theater with young people. Students improve their communication skills and their capacity to read, write and speak. Theater is a collaborative team sport that involves a lot of problem-solving. Students build positive self-esteem and a motivation to learn. Theater can provide an avenue of achievement for students who might otherwise not be successful in school.

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