Thalia Goldstein Ph. D.
Thalia Goldstein Ph. D.
Pace University
Developmental Psychologist
FULL BIO >

Using Theatre to Think About Others

In this article, Thalia Goldstein, a developmental psychologist at Pace University (and former professional actress and dancer), explores the research on theatre training, explains what theatre can do for kids, and gives families fun, simple activities to try at home. For more on the many ways theatre training can help kids, read this article [link] by Annie Levy, a theatre director, collaborative artist, and educator living in New York City.

We all admire actors. We shower them with money, fame, and awards. We interview them endlessly about their craft, how they act, and where their talent comes from. While the chances of a child becoming a famous actor are very slim, all children can benefit from learning how to act, and all children should be exposed to theatre training as part of their basic education.

Here’s why. Theatre is an ancient art that comes directly from the pretend play children love to engage in as young as one year old. When children pretend, and when they learn to act, they learn “perspective-taking.” What does this mean? It means they become engaged with and able to see multiple perspectives, especially when it comes to thinking about emotions. Theatre can engage children in a way that many other subjects cannot—by having them physicalize internal states, and think about others’ personalities in a new way.

A number of studies reveal that being involved in acting classes as a child can have a positive effect on a variety of cognitive skills. For instance, a meta-analysis (a study of many studies) from Ann Podzlony and Project Zero shows that preschool children gain language skills and a deeper understanding of narrative when they are involved in theatre classes. Likewise, work from my lab at Pace University demonstrates that elementary and high school children gain not only empathy and a better understanding of others but also an ability to comprehend and regulate their emotions—all keys to building a strong emotional intelligence. And research from Helga and Tony Noice, a cognitive psychologist and theatre director at Elmhurst College, just outside of Chicago, shows that children (and adults!) gain memory skills by learning how to memorize lines, as actors do every day.

What does the research tell us? Underneath it all lies the common thread that thinking about multiple characters—their emotions, thoughts, feelings, memories, ideals, and ideas—can lead to real cognitive changes. While the scientific study of theatre training is still in its infancy, there are a number of easy theatre games you can play at home to encourage your children to take on multiple perspectives and think about others in a new way.

Dramatic activities to try with kids at home

  • Create a “play in a bag.” Collect four to five random household items (for example, a wooden spoon, an old formal dress, salt and pepper shakers, and a basketball). Give your child and a friend five minutes to come up with a play that involves all objects.  Watch with wonder at the characters they create. Then, have your child pick objects for you.
  • Gather as many hats as you can find. Try them on one by one, creating a different character for each hat. Figure out the posture, walk, and voice for each character. Then try having two or more characters have conversations. (For added fun, pick some non-hat objects—pots, buckets, an old box—for some of the “hats”!)
  • Pick a favorite book with your child, and have her act out the character’s story. As she goes through it, try out different choices and decisions. What if Cinderella stayed home instead of going to the ball? What if Spiderman chose to tell everyone his real identity?

Learn More

Thalia Goldstein, “The Mind on Stage: Fictional Worlds, Cognition, and Emotion,” Psychology Today

Ellen Galinsky, “Perspective Taking,” from her Mind in the Making website

Michelle Garcia Winner, “Four Steps on Perspective Taking,” SocialThinking.com

Hunter Gehlbach, “Social Perspective Taking: A Multidimensional Approach,” Usable Knowledge, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Beth Azar, “The Power of Pretending,” American Psychological Association