Social inclusion and exclusion are central issues in many young people’s lives.
While school yard politics are short lived, the power dynamics that drive exclusion in schools do not disappear upon graduation. Oppression, marginalization, and discrimination are part of the legacy today’s young people will inherit in the “real world”, and are already shaping young lives – often to a greater degree than many adults realize. Nurturing compassion and inclusion provides a way forward for children and adults alike to create social change in their lives and in the world.
Drama is one tool for empowering young people to give voice to their troubles and embody the change they wish to experience in the world. Creating skits or improvising together creates space for children to playfully explore social issues that may be too heavy to approach in other contexts. When sensitively guided towards topics of exclusion, drama games can support young people to interactively explore, challenge, and re-write their social scripts. The drama games described in this resource provide a starting point for using drama to foster a culture of inclusivity within grade 4-7 classrooms and in other group settings.
Tips for Hosting Drama Games with Young People:
- Throughout the following games, it is essential that participants maintain ownership and autonomy in the stories, problems, and resolutions they dramatically explore. For this reason, it is important that the adult facilitators refrain from contributing to the content of the scenes.
- Participants bring their own diverse histories and experiences into their dramatic play. Working through themes of exclusion may be painful or triggering for some students, especially those who have felt excluded in real life or have experienced trauma. Work to cultivate an environment in which participants feel safe to join in the games and set healthy boundaries for their own involvement.
Drama Games for Social Change
1. Warm-Up - Fill The Space
Time: 5-10 minutes
Purpose: Building awareness of self and others while moving through space
Setting: Room or outdoor space in which children can walk around freely without bumping into objects or each other
Instructions: Children walk around the room without touching one another, trying to fill all of the empty space. As they walk, give instructions at 30 second intervals to "freeze," "shake out your whole body," "walk like someone else in the room," and "stop." When you are ready to conclude the game, instruct children to "shake out your body again" and "stop."
2. Main Activity - Forum Theatre
Time: 45-60 minutes (may be spread out over multiple sessions depending on class size)
Purpose: Acting out scenarios of exclusion at school and brainstorming ways to resolve them
Setting: Space for a "stage" area and an "audience" area in a classroom, gym, or outdoors. Props may be used but are optional.
Instructions: Brainstorm scenarios of exclusion and write them on the board or slips of paper. Divide children into small groups. Giving them several minutes to prepare, invite each group to act out one of the scenarios in a 2-3 minute skit. Then, invite each group to perform it a second time, with a twist: audience members may take the place of the actor(s) who are excluded in the skit. Finally, invite each group to perform their skit once more, with a new twist: audience members may volunteer to replace the "excluder(s)" in the scene. The scene is over once time is up or the actors run out of ideas.
Variations: Switch, First Responders, and Feelings Freeze
3. Closing - Look For The Helpers
Time: 15 minutes
Purpose: Discussing ways that compassion showed up in the Forum Theatre activity and brainstorming how they could extend to real life
Setting: Seated in a circle in chairs or on the carpet
Instructions: Ask children what compassion means to them. Ask students to think about ways that their peers acted with compassion during Forum Theatre (a trick for noticing compassion is to look for the helpers!). Then, invite them to reflect on how they could use compassion to help when they observe or experience exclusion in real life, and discuss as a group.
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In a 2020 Canadian study, nearly 30% of grade 5-8 students reported experiencing social exclusion at school.
For example, Priest et al.’s (2013) systematic review found that racial discrimination is a key determinant of health for children and young people. In particular, racial discrimination is strongly associated with negative mental health outcomes such as anxiety, depression, psychological distress, low self-esteem, and low self-worth.
For example, a 2020 American study with over 600 respondents found that children develop an awareness of race in early childhood – long before most parents begin talking with them about it.
Co-author Jessica Sullivan, PhD, reflects on why this may be the case in an interview for the American Psychological Association:
“Children are capable of thinking about all sorts of complex topics at a very young age […] even if adults don't talk to kids about race, children will work to make sense of their world and will come up with their own ideas, which may be inaccurate or detrimental.”
These games are inspired by Theatre of the Oppressed, which is a form of structured dramatization that seeks to expose, resist, and transform social and political injustice in the real world.
- For example, in the "Forum Theatre," game themes of exclusion are presented for participants to work through together. While the participants may experiment with compassion and inclusion as possible paths through these scenarios, these resolutions are not scripted or imposed - nor is the idea of "one correct path" conveyed.
- In "Look for the Helpers", participants reflect together on ways that compassion arose in their scenes. In this way, compassion is used as a tool for reflection and to spark discussion of how to resist and/or transform exclusion in real life.
- Establish ground rules for participation that include privacy, awareness of self and others, and a mutually agreed to "safe" word or gesture that participants can use when they want to leave the scene.
- It can also be beneficial to invite, rather than instruct, participants; offer choices about whether and how to participate; and check in one-on-one with students as needed. A trauma-informed approach is encouraged.
Once the participants get comfortable, call out the following suggestions with only 10 seconds between them: "you are made of jelly," "you are carrying a bowl of soup on your head, don't spill it!," "you are a superhero," "you are as small as a grain of sand," "you are really old." Feel free to improvise or invite the children to call out ideas.
Their objective is to resist being excluded by acting out ways in which they could overcome being left out in real life.
Their objective is to act out new ways of maintaining their power of exclusion.
Audience members may call out "switch!" at any time, at which point the actors playing the "excluders" and "excluded" must switch roles.
At any point, the actor(s) being excluded may pretend to dial a "first responder" - an audience member who will join the scene to help them out in some way.
No more than twice per scene, an audience member may call out "freeze," and the actors must freeze in place until they have shared a word, gesture, or sound describing how they feel in this moment.
If needed, explain that we feel compassionate when we feel bad for others who are suffering and want to help them. We are compassionate when we notice these feelings and use them to do something nice or helpful for someone who is suffering. We can also be compassionate towards ourselves!
- Theatre of the Oppressed by Augusto Boal (1993)
- Games for actors and non-actors by Augusto Boal (2002)
- Theatre of the Oppressed: A Manual for Educators by Gopal Midha (2010)
- Theatre of the Oppressed with Children: A Field Experiment by Johnny Saldaña (2005)
- Youth and Theatre of the Oppressed edited by Peter Duffy and Elinor Vettraino (2010)