Why Chickenshed believes in theatre for children.

Cuts to arts in education

One of the first actions of the new Chair of Arts Council England, Nick Serota, has been to commission a report exploring the benefit of arts for children. Starting in September 2017, it will investigate the best ways of nurturing creativity in young people, reviewing the short and long term benefits to children of experiencing arts and culture.

The report arises amid concerns over the reduced status of creative education, manifest through the government introduction of the English baccalaureate, within which it will not be compulsory to study arts subjects. In 2016 (for the first time since 2012) the percentage of pupils taking at least one arts subject had declined and teacher numbers and teaching hours in creative subjects were declining almost twice as fast as in other subjects.

Serota hopes that the commission will go beyond curriculum concerns and explore other ideas that can be applied across the country to ensure that all children are given access to arts as a way of enriching their lives. He talks about ‘magic moments’ where art provides insight into yourself or the world.

The role of theatre

The Social Mobility Commission has suggested that cultural activities which broaden horizons, such as theatre visits, can help raise young people’s aspirations for further education or employment. As such it is hoped these initiatives can start to address the “entrenched inequalities in opportunities” and “social segregation in schools,” and the resulting tension created with youngsters living close together but having different experiences. 

In America, the experience of ‘participation’ has been taken further by the creators of the musical ‘Hamilton’. The Gilder Lehrman Institute developed the “Hamilton Education Programme” – an in-class curriculum inspired by the lessons embedded in the musical. This curriculum has been integrated into schools across the nation, where the majority of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. Students are given the opportunity to develop and produce their own original performances within the Hamilton genre, telling all the stories of their lives in ways that matter to them.

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda says:

“They’re not all going to go into theatre. They might write this piece for the show and never write anything again. But, I do believe firmly that approaching history in this way ...forces you to reckon with what you’re going to do with your life...it forces you to confront what it is to live a life of meaning...”

 ‘To Live a life of meaning’ 

There is plenty of evidence that giving children access to the arts ticks development boxes - benefiting children’s cognitive, emotional, spiritual, linguistic, and moral wellbeing. It impacts positively on confidence, self-esteem, personal, social, emotional development. It breaks down language barriers, cultural prejudices and reduces inequality.

However, for many of us involved in the creating art WITH children and young people it is not just a sticking plaster to heal the harm created when you take away opportunities for self-expression from individuals who feel the direct impact of social inequality. It is not just a way for those ‘without’ to experience what it is to ‘have’. It is not an intervention to develop the resilience of children to survive their reality.

Creative participation is, for us at Chickenshed, the vehicle through which children and young people can become an active changemakers within their communities. It is a platform upon which they can not only share their dreams but promote them as an option for future social strategy and ambition.

Dreams are a huge part of our work here at Chickenshed.  It is where our founders, Mary Ward and Jo Collins began. The company was, quite literally, built from a belief in the unimaginable dreams of the young people who were part of it. And we now rely on the leadership and inspiration of the six hundred young people who are part of our company and the thousands more that we encounter through our outreach work each year. They steer us with their dreams.

Educationalist Ken Robinson has, for years, advocated the need for creativity to be part of our children’s education in order to provide us with the leaders our world needs for the future. ‘We need people who can innovate, who can think differently, who work in teams, who can collaborate, can communicate and are quick to respond to change.’

For children ‘dreams’ are aspirations, targets, goals. As time passes we start to define them as ‘the impossible’, without realism and something to hide. As Robinson puts it ‘we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it – we are educated out of it.’

At Chickenshed we create a space where young people can embed their dreams into their creative communication. We then cling onto their coat-tails as they explore the systemic nature of social change without the limitations of our linear thinking. They make us believe again in a life of meaning.

Dreams of Freedom

On Monday 26 June, 600 cast members of ‘Dreams of Freedom’ took to the stage of The Albert Hall to communicate their vision for social change. Working in partnership with Amnesty, Chickenshed children were joined by pupils from 12 primary schools to share their dreams, and demand that we listen and learn what we used to understand:

Dear Universe, I hope you understand that freedom is the dream, it is the dream for everyone. We have an energy ball inside our heart. Let us show you a place where we can be ourselves and let our hearts go wild...we are the future, we have life in ourselves so you’d better listen to what we say.. Let us show you, we have good ideas and we will change the world with them...we are the ones with imagination, our brains haven’t developed yet so we get better answers in fact some children are cleverer than adults... we’re all going to grow into adults eventually, what we think right now could change what happens when we’re older...We all have a mind of our own and every voice matters. Are you ready to hear us? 

The cast of Dreams of Freedom

Louise Perry

Director of Strategic Development & Impact