All the World’s a Stage: Using Theater Techniques in the Classroom

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

All the World’s a Stage: Using Theater Techniques in the ClassroomMany of you know that my first college degree is in theater. After years of suffering for my art, I decided I needed to change directions. I went back to school and earned a degree in education. During my first teaching position, I found myself relying more and more on my theater training. Theater teaches you how to be focused, solve problems, think critically and creatively, work as a team, and self-regulate to achieve a goal—many of the skills and attitudes we expect our students to develop in the classroom.

Using the techniques of theater in your classroom gives kids a safe place to try new things, make mistakes, and learn from others. Along with developing creativity, theatrical tools teach problem-solving, critical reasoning, and collaboration. Kids also learn risk-taking skills, affective resilience, nonverbal responsiveness, and social mindfulness.

Theater activities encourage students to think on their feet without the fear of being wrong, because the number one rule is “there are no mistakes, only opportunities.” Through using movement, pantomime, improvisation, role playing, and group discussion, students develop greater communication skills, social awareness, confidence, problem-solving abilities, and self-concept. The goal is to guide children to a greater sense of self-fulfillment and personal and social acceptance.

Actors have five tools they use to communicate: voice, body, imagination, concentration, and collaboration. Teaching students how to build their own toolbox of strategies can benefit them in learning and communication processes.

Voice: The ability to use your voice to be heard and understood
Articulation is critical in being heard and understood. All actors routinely go through diction practice. Our students must be articulate to project ideas and communicate effectively with others.

Start with simple practices such as: Sally sells seashells south of the seashore or Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Move on to more complex sound reproductions such as tongue twisters (repeated numerous times as fast as possible):

  • Unique New York
  • Red leather, yellow leather
  • She says she shall sew a sheet

And then move to more difficult and longer statements: She stood on the balcony, inexplicably mimicking him hiccuping, and amicably welcoming him home.

While working through these diction activities, have students concentrate on their breathing, being sure to breathe from their diaphragms. Focus on breathing deeply. Also pay attention to lip and tongue movement—really work those muscles.

For more diction strategies, click here.

Body: The ability to use your body to communicate messages
Actors use their bodies to project characters, emotions, and ideas. The use of the body in communication is extremely important—it’s called body language. Poor body language can communicate the wrong messages, whether in verbal or nonverbal interactions.

To help students develop this language, start with basic physical stretches. Not only will stretching help your students loosen up, it can also release stress.

If you are into yoga, teach your students the poses. Or ask your physical education teacher to share with you stretches students do in gym class. You can also use the “shake and stretch” method. Starting at the top of the head:

  • Shake and stretch each body part individually.
  • Shake and stretch body parts in pairs (head and arms, shoulders and feet).
  • Shake and stretch up high and down low.
  • Shake and stretch wide and thin.
  • Shake and stretch fast and slow.
  • Shake and stretch without bending your knees or elbows.

Another fun way to warm up your body is to draw the alphabet with different body parts. Ask the students to use their nose to draw the letter B. Now, ask them to use their ear to draw the letter Z. And so on.

For more movement activities, click here.

Imagination: The ability to come up with different ideas
The best ideas are formed through an expansive imagination. Imagination is the ability to come up with novel and unique ideas through different ways of thinking. Creative thinking is one of the most powerful tools of imagination. The strategies of fluency and flexibility are a great place to begin.

Fluency is the ability to come up with a lot of ideas. To develop students’ fluency, start with simple steps such as asking them to list everything they can think of that is green within one minute (you can use any color you wish). Have them share their lists with a partner and compare and contrast the lists. Do it again with another color or shape. Routinely asking kids to do this simple activity can open up their minds to thinking more expansively. Wait for unique ideas to pop up—for example, the kid who writes envy when asked to list things that are green.

You can expand this idea to your content by asking kids to list things that are “independent,” or any other concept you are working on. You can also have your students draw pictures of what the concept looks like. Seeing what kids list or draw gives you an idea of how well they understand the concept.

Flexibility is the ability to think of things in a new way. I used to have a “junk bag” in my classroom full of strange and common objects (like a wooden spoon, an electrical outlet cover, an extension cord). Look around your house or school for those odd-looking objects to put in your junk bag. Using one of the objects, ask kids to think of the item as something that it’s NOT. So, for the wooden spoon, kids may say it’s a microphone, a baton, a sword, a magic wand, and so on. Being a flexible thinker helps in finding unconventional ways to solve problems by using what is available.

For more ideas on building imagination, click here. I also have many more ideas for developing creative thinking in my book Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century.

Concentration: The ability to stay focused
Our students are being raised in a very concentration-challenged environment. With technology, everything is at their fingertips immediately—there is no need to persevere or wait. While technology has made our lives more efficient, its downside is that it has made us want instant gratification and has decreased our ability to concentrate for long periods of time.

Concentration is a learned skill, and you can teach kids to stay focused through engaging activities. To build concentration, find a time during your day for kids to go “off the grid”—no gadgets, tablets, phones, or computers. During this time, go old-school: Use thinking or memory games or crossword or jigsaw puzzles, or have students put a list of words into alphabetical order (use similar words such as adjustments and adjusting so that kids alphabetize beyond the first few letters).

Also have your kids put their heads down on their desks. Tell them to sit up when they think one minute has passed. Monitor your kids, listing when kids sat up and how close they came to one minute. Practice this activity over time to see how close kids can come to the one-minute time.

For more ideas for building concentration, click here.

Collaboration: The ability to work with others to get things done
We are all in this together. The best ideas come when people work together. No actor does it alone—even in a one-person show. Many people contribute to the production. Each person has a role to play in making the show a success.

So, too, in the classroom. When students work together with purpose, great things can happen. Working collaboratively takes practice. Just like in a Broadway musical, everyone has a role to play to make the production a success.

One activity that can build collaboration and teamwork is having small groups of students go on a scavenger hunt. Have your students look for things hidden around the classroom or school. Use a list of clues that lead to more clues and ultimately to hidden objects. Consider using information students learned during lessons to help them find the items. (For example, your clue might be, “The date of the Boston Tea Party.” The answer to this is 12/16/1773, which can lead kids to room 1216 or 1773, where the next clue is located.) Group the students based on each having a special talent or a different area of knowledge—so that collectively they can find the objects. Another idea is to give each member of the team a specific job to do—so that collectively they can find the object.

For more ideas on building collaboration and teamwork, click here.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, William Shakespeare) Knowing how actors learn, practice, and apply their skills can be an exceptional way to help students be more confident, self-aware, and productive. Who knows, maybe you will spark the next Meryl Streep or Sidney Poitier!

Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners


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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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