On “Playing Pretend”: Making Space for “The Real” in Elementary Education

As an artistic community who are heavily invested in the health of drama and dance education in Ontario, it is important to celebrate some of the great work being done with Pre-Service educators at the university level.  The importance of effective pedagogy in drama and dance education in Ontario Faculties of Ed. is vital to the future of these art forms in schools. 

Under the guidance of Professor Christine Jackson, pre-service student Jessamyn Polson has written a paper that explores the role that drama and dance can play in assisting with the exploration of potentially difficult themes and topics in an elementary setting.  Both Christine and Jessamyn have been kind enough to share their work with CODE. 

Read on for context and insight from Christine Jackson and to read the paper submitted by Jessamyn.

A big thank-you to both for the exciting work you do on behalf of students and the arts.  Bravo!  

Finally, Faculties of Education are being held accountable for ensuring that all of the Arts are taught over the course of the two-year Teacher Certification program. The advocacy within Faculties of Education by both Instructors and students, has been amplified by external voices from CODE, the Ontario College of Teachers, ArtsECO, NRTEA and others. As a community, let’s pause to acknowledge the success of these efforts. Let’s document and share stories of success, to strengthen our hope and resolve, as we endlessly strive to ensure all students have access to meaningful arts experiences. 

I have been teaching Primary /Junior Drama and Dance at OISE/UT since it was introduced to the Masters of Teaching Program in July 2015.  Depending on who is available to teach, we sometimes structure the course in a unique way, whereby the  students have six 3-hour classes in Drama and Dance and six 3- hour classes in Music and Dance.  I enjoy planning collaboratively with the Dance/Music instructor to ensure that we are addressing distinct aspects of the Dance curriculum in each module.  Our courses are very practical and experiential, with a focus on meaningful integration across the curriculum. I also frame Drama and Dance as culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy in action. The students are encouraged, always to place their drama and dance learning within a bigger frame, and it is inspiring to see the connections they make to social justice, mental health and well-being, identity and intersectionality, creativity and criticality. Their inquiries also connect them to key  drama and dance scholars, theorists, and artists.  There are limits to how far we can go in just six classes, but still, the pedagogical stretch is deep and wide for many students, as they discover and reclaim the place of drama and dance in their personal and professional lives. 

I believe that the sharing of student learning is a powerful form of advocacy. Therefore, I am pleased to share one example that demonstrates and celebrates the depth of learning that occurs when Drama and Dance is offered to Teacher Candidates.  It is heartening to imagine the future of education, as we graduate a growing number of teachers with a commitment to Drama and Dance in Education. 

Thank you Jessamyn, for sharing your thoughts and reflections in your paper, On Playing Pretend, as you begin to make sense of the rich, complex terrain of drama in education.

Christine Jackson, Sessional Lecturer




On “Playing Pretend”: 

Making Space for “The Real” in Elementary Education

Research Into Practice | Dance and Drama

Jessamyn Polson, PJ 281

submitted to: Christine Jackson

December 9, 2016


1.0 “Playing Pretend”: Making Space for “The Real” in Elementary Education 

            Simply put, this paper will inquire into the ways in which drama can be used in elementary education to approach difficult subject material. That is, how the practice of “playing pretend” can create the necessary conditions for talking about “real” life in ways that are meaningful and safe. I hesitate, however, to use the word “safe” because in education, especially elementary education, it is often equivocated with qualities that make for terrifically boring drama about appropriate library behaviours, sharing toys, and general white, liberal feel-goodery. I prefer a more robust understanding of safety: a safe space is not simply the absence of fear, pain, and difficult parents, but a space where children can bring their whole selves, unruly as they may be. Thus, I am not interested in prescriptive dramatic forms, but rather a practice that values the lived experience of the participants and welcomes it into the play space. As an unruly child with an unruly childhood myself, I know I would have benefitted from such spaces.

2.0 Experiences and Emerging Pedagogical Aspirations 

I don’t really “fit” in the MT program, but being a “misfit” is not new for me. I grew up a white kid in Costa Rica; a dancer in a family of Baptists; and today, a high school dropout in teacher’s college. Though my experiences with formal education have often been fractious, there is something undeniably intoxicating to me about learning, and this, of course, informs my emerging teaching practices and aspirations. 

I am certainly not alone in naming education—and its sites—as both oppressive and potentially transformative (Dei & Asgharzadeh, 2001). As such, the central question of my educational philosophy is how to eliminate (when I’m feeling ambitious) or, at least, mitigate the violence of schooling, and make room for learning as a potentially transformative relationship. To do so, I seek to practice a robust form of accessibility in my pedagogy: emotional, physical, and intellectual accessibility. My aim is not only to create safer spaces for unruly bodies within institutions, but also to invite others into becoming unruly with me.

        Finally, an increasingly important component of my pedagogical aspirations is to explicitly address the power inequities that exist between me, as an adult educator, and my students as children. Over the last year, I have become troubled by how schooling is an integral component of the normalization of the oppression of children. The system of schooling is fundamentally premised on the coercion of children and control over their bodies. Never is this more evident than in elementary education. Despite the proliferation of “inquiry-based” learning models and the idealization of children (and their blessed innocence), little has been done within education to dismantle the assumption that the adult in the classroom is the more valuable human. Indeed, on the self/Other binary often used to describe processes by which the dehumanization of Others becomes justified, children land firmly in the camp of the Others (Gaztambide-Fernández, 2012).

        I am beginning to see drama as a practice for opening up space for conversations with my students about their experiences of oppression, resistance, and liberation, as well as the systemic inequities in which we are caught; I will now attend to that learning (Gould-Lundy, 2015).

3.0 Learning from Course Readings 

In the introduction to a drama activity with a group of children, David Booth states “identity is big. It is who we are, who people think we are. Who we are not…who we wish we were… all those things make up identity” (Booth, 2013). He then proceeds to give participants short poems and instructions for a drama activity based on the poems. The poems are not simple—they allude to poverty and death—and the students struggle with them.

There are two things that I love about this snippet and find instructive for my own practice of using drama to broach difficult subjects with children. First, Booth (2013) does not limit his description of identity to so-called positive or “empowering” ideas. Indeed, in his statement he is making space for a nuanced and complex understanding of identity that recognizes socialization, desire, and possibly absences as part of the process of understanding who we are. Though subtle, the effect of this introduction is, for me, very powerful. Because although Booth (2013) is not explicit about the painful ways in which identities can be formed, he doesn’t dwell on trite affirmations of everyone’s worth; he makes room for difficulty. Second, Booth (2013) does not shy away from letting his students grapple with the difficulties he has made room for. Booth (2013) lets them struggle, and reminds us, the teachers, to let our students struggle; difficult work is rewarding (Booth, 2013). This bears on my question in that it reminds me that students are capable of complexity in their thinking and expression because that complexity is already present in their lives. We, as educators, are not honouring our students when we make assumptions about their incapacity.

Creating the conditions wherein students can struggle and learn through drama, however, is not always easy. Drama is contextual and relational, and what works in one classroom, or on one day, will not be the magic potion for all drama instruction forever (Gallagher, 2014). As Kathy Gould-Lundy (2015) describes in “Making the Space for Drama and Social Justice,” students come to the work with different experiences, intentions, and desires, and furthermore, the space itself is a teacher (Gallagher, 2014; Gould-Lundy, 2015; Taylor 2000). Thus drama educators must be flexible and responsive to the needs of the participants, especially when pursuing difficult work (Gould-Lundy, 2015). Gould-Lundy’s (2015) work, however, also offers some interesting insight into teachers’ perspectives on drama education. Gould-Lundy (2015) describes how different groups of educators responded to drama instruction and notes that many of these educators needed to first deconstruct their stereotypical notions of drama in order to understand the purpose of the work. Of course, such groundwork would be beneficial with any group of students, but the contrast between Gould-Lundy’s (2015) description of adult educators’ resistance, and Booth’s (2013) description of younger participants’ willingness is interesting to me. Maybe it is not our students who are afraid of engaging with difficult subjects, but us. As adults, and educators of young children, an undue preoccupation is placed on certainty in our practices, but uncertainties—and drama—are unavoidable.

4.0 Learning from Research 

            I laughed when I came across Dorothy Heachcote’s assertion that drama is not something extraordinary that special people do, but a technique that ordinary people use all the time to cope with unsettling circumstances (Wagner, 1999). People everywhere and at every age are already using drama to process difficult stuff (Wagner, 1999). For Heathcote, the role of the drama educator is to invite students to use what they already know to develop broader and deeper understandings of the world(s) they inhabit (Wagner, 1999). Thus, the educator acts as an evoker/provoker and not a director, encouraging drama practices that focus on process rather than products (Wagner, 1999). Thus, the value of drama education cannot be measured by its ability to produce plays, or even the elusive “student engagement,” but instead in the development of emotional responsibility and the social health of the community (Gallagher, 2014; Wagner, 1999).[1]

[1] Reading Heathcote’s work reminded me of a valuable lesson that my cohort experienced this summer. A brilliant professor, Lee Airton, invited us to role play our responses to various instances of racist harassment that we may confront in schools. The lesson was valuable not only because we were able to explore the effects of tone, tempo, and audience, but also because it provided space for identifying and naming the feelings that arose for us, and might arise for others in the hypothetical situation.  

Though drama is a quotidian practice, it carries within it a more subversive potential. As Kathleen Gallagher (2014) describes in Why Theatre Matters, drama blends the real and the play-pretend into something new and hopeful. The practice of drama provides not only a technique for investigating difficult subject material, but an imaginative mechanism wherein “old wounds [can be] transformed into new forms of political engagement” (Gallagher, 2014. p. 213). Playing pretend, Gallagher (2014) argues, allows students to develop the intimacies between life and art that they long for. However, we must always remember that drama is a praxis of process, not a product; whole children, whole teachers, and the whole world must be welcome, uncertainties and all (Gallagher, 2014; Wagner, 1999).

5.0 Resources 

        The industry of creating resources for teachers is thriving; though teachers often bemoan the lack of resources, I find that there are actually so many resources available for teachers that it is difficult to find the good ones. Or rather, it is difficult to find resources that are intelligible, timely, and flexible. Thus, in selecting resources for this paper my criteria were that they must be critical, accessible, and adaptable.

I chose The Drama Classroom, by Philip Taylor (2000), and Games for Actors and Non-Actors by Augusto Boal (1992) because both are readily accessible online or through the library, and they are clearly organized and formatted. What I like most about them, however, is that instead of providing context-bound lesson plans that will become dated and irrelevant, they provide, in the case of Taylor (2000), some theoretical and foundational considerations for the development of a classroom drama praxis, and in the case of Boal (1992), a cornucopia of dramatic games that can be used individually or in conjunction to build the dramatic range of the game players. Furthermore, both resources argue that the value of drama is embedded it its ability to develop players’ awareness of themselves and their spaces, challenge the status quo, and move toward hopeful practices of resistance. Finally, these books could easily be used together; Taylor’s (2000) book providing the structure, and Boal (1992) providing the contents of a robust dramatic praxis for introducing, reconciling, and transforming the difficult matter to which we are all subject, even children.



Boal, A. (1992). Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Second Edition. Adrian Jackson: translator. London: Routledge.

Booth, D. (2013). Using Poetry to Explore Identity: David Booth. Webcasts for Educators. Retrieved from http://www.curriculum.org/k-12/en/videos/using-drama-to-explore-identity...

Dei, G. Asgharzadeh, A. (2001) The Power of Social Theory: Towards an anti-colonial discursive framework. Journal of Educational Thought 35(3). 297-323.

Gallagher. K. (2014). Why theatre matters: Urban youth, engagement, and a pedagogy of the real. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press. 

Gould-Lundy. K. (2015). Making the space for drama and social justice. Drama, Theatre and Performance Education in Canada: Classroom and Community Contexts. Ottawa: Canadian Association for Teacher Education.

Gaztambide-Fernández, R. (2012). Decolonization and the pedagogy of solidarity. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society. 1(1). 41-67.

Taylor. P. (2000). The drama classroom: Action, reflection, transformation. London, New York: RoutlegeFalmer.

Wagner. B., J. (1999). Dorothy Heathcote: Drama as a learning medium. Portland, Maine: Calendar Islands Publishers.