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I have noticed many posts, on Facebook recently, asking for recommendations for a Christmas play and the merits of different productions. I have taught early years for over 20 years and never realised how many different productions there are available. One thing that doesn’t surprise however is how much preparation and time these performances take at the end of a long and very busy term.
The first term of the school year is such a long one what with settling in, baseline, the first parents evening, shorter days, Christmas cards and the Christmas performance to produce. And that’s just the teachers! How exhausting is this for the children?
I experienced this in the run up to my first Christmas performance, as a newly qualified reception teacher. It was a ‘bought’ performance and I was in charge of the choir, which was quite large as there were too few parts for our 90 reception children. It took weeks and weeks to learn the songs, and dances, and for children to know when and where they had to enter, and exit, the stage. Some of the children couldn’t see why they had to stop what they were doing, to keep singing the same songs and I have to say it was the most depressing thing I had ever been involved in! I was frustrated by having to stop children, who were highly involved in their play, to troop down to the hall to sing the same songs again and again. By the time of the performance, the children and I were completely fed up with the whole thing.
At this point in the year the vast majority of children are still only 4 years old. They will be used, hopefully, to having time to lead their own learning and follow their interests and may find it confusing to have their days then broken up for rehearsals and singing practice, particularly if this is done en masse.
In addition, there are always some children that need to be re-settled, after the October half term break and there are usually a good number, in each cohort, who are not developmentally ready to sit for extended periods of rehearsal time as they need opportunities to be outside, to use their whole body to explore, experiment and learn through doing!
If I thought the first year was bad enough, the following year we were told that Reception and Year One had to do an Easter production together – with 180 children! That put paid to the whole first half of the spring term. Thank goodness that was never repeated!
I dont know anyone who has attended a Christmas play however who hasn’t thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly when, given the age of the children, it all goes invariably wrong as this just adds to the fun! I must admit I completely get the ‘aaahhh’ factor, having attended the performances of my children, and grandchildren, over the years, in addition to the many I have produced.
But what are the children gaining from their involvement in the production and is it worth it in terms of time and effort? Is there enough of a benefit for the loss of independent learning time over the half term?
THE NEED FOR AN ARTS CURRICULUM
There are widespread concerns about how the arts are being sidelined, due to a narrowing of the curriculum, with teachers under pressure to prioritise maths and literacy in order to improve outcomes. Yet there are many benefits to participation in the performing arts, even for young children, such as developing confidence and the excitement of performing in front of an audience, learning the lyrics and melodies to the songs, developing listening skills when following stage directions, collaboration, with everyone is working towards a shared goal, and a sense of pride and achievement in the end result.
It is a fallacy that focusing only on reading, writing and maths will produce better results. Schools that have embedded the arts within the curriculum, such as Feversham Primary Academy, in Bradford, have seen the positive impact that this has had on attainment in other subjects too. If we are to have a broad and balanced curriculum then it is vitally important that we make sure that children have access to the arts as, after all, this is where some of them will shine!
But, with limited curriculum time it is important that this is used wisely. My granddaughter, who is in Year One, came home last week with the Autumn 2 curriculum map. Every music lesson, up to Christmas, has been blocked out for the children to learn the Nativity songs which to my mind raises a few issues. One, the amount of time allocated to learning these songs, as I’m quite sure that by the time of the performance she will be as fed up singing them as we are listening, and two, I wonder what elements of the music curriculum will she be missing out on during this time?
WHY A NATIVITY PLAY?
After my first two awful experiences of full scale productions, I was determined to do a performance that was simple to produce, involved many of the children as possible and kept true to the Nativity story, as I think that the true meaning of Christmas is often lost in commercialism and think it benefits the children to know the origins of this special time of year, as most children think its all about Father Christmas!
In addition, not so long ago, the traditional nativity play was dying out, as many schools, replaced this with a ‘winter festival’ so not to offend those who observe other religions.
Over 75% of the children at my school had English as an additional language. We celebrated most religious festivals, as these were pertinent to our children. This allowed for the sharing of experiences and beliefs, enabling the children to talk about their similarities and differences. Over all these years, I have only ever had one parent ask for her child to be excluded on religious grounds.
QUICK AND SIMPLE BUT EFFECTIVE
I felt I needed a balance, between producing a great performance without too much disruption to children’s independent learning, so I adapted a Christmas play that nursery had performed at my previous school. It was so simple, took little time away from play, fulfilled the expectations of the school, produced the ‘aaaah’ factor for families and friends and, more importantly, enabled all children to participate, develop a love of performing and have FUN!
I produced this nativity for many years, on a stage and off, with cohorts ranging from 50 to 90 and kept it fresh by changing some songs each year whilst keeping the format the same. I varied the number of characters to accommodate the number of children in the cohort. The story is told by a narrator, who has many lines, but this makes it very adaptable as these can either be read by an adult or by lots of different children.
I found organisation was key to ensure that we weren’t stopping and starting throughout the day and only needed a few whole class rehearsals towards the end. Costumes were sourced and labelled at the beginning of the process so they were ready to use the following year.
We sang the songs at the end of each day, accompanied by song clips from You Tube, for some but often played the songs throughout the day too, as there were many that enjoyed singing and dancing along to them.
The number of characters with speaking parts were few but there were a core group of children who had to move around on stage and so needed a bit more rehearsal time. These were taken to the hall at the end of the morning, as the others tidied up and had a story, so it didn’t interrupt our day. Narrators were given the lines to take home to practice with parents.
All in all it took only 2 weeks, from start to finish, to produce this play, and it only interrupted our routine in the last few days before the performance, so that by the time we got to the dress rehearsal, which we performed for KS1 and 2, the children were really excited and raring to go.
In order to make links to the story (and performance) back in the classroom, I cut out and laminated some pictures of the characters then attached them to cotton reels, along with other resources so children could create their own story map. That way they could all have a speaking part as they took the roles of the different characters and could often be heard saying their lines to one another.
Once the performances were complete we left out the costumes so that children could continue to re-enact the story should they wish. This was really popular and provided us with some great observations of child initiated performances.
OUT WITH THE OLD – IN WITH THE NEW
It seems, from looking at social media, that practitioners often look for something new to perform rather than rely on that which is tried and tested however I found that, despite the story and structure remaining the same each year, each new cohort brought with them new personalities with different strengths and abilities so every year we produced something unique.
Should you be of the same mind and want the benefits of a performance without the weeks and weeks of preparation then you can find my Nativity play here. I have provided stage directions, character lists, song lyrics and you tube clips to ensure that you have to do as little as possible. I just hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
I believe that all practitioners do their best for the children in their care, whether this be a full blown or very simple production but I do think that we need to take time to reflect on what we are doing, why and who is it for. Is it for the children’s benefit, at the behest of leadership or to please parents. Maybe it’s all three. Either way evaluation and reflection is key to our role as educators and worthwhile thinking about in the run up to Christmas.