Performing arts, anyone?

While many children find their joy and talent lies with sports activities, others find love in the performing arts arena. Performing arts include theater, opera, magic, dance, music, singing, puppetry—anything that requires the artist to be present and doing something for his audience.

Even if a child is a gifted athlete there are plenty of reasons for he or she to add a slice of performing arts to their repertoire. The research that illustrates the multitude of ways performing arts positively impacts academics is wide and deep. Shirley Brice Heath, PhD looked at a variety of arts programs from around the country and how engaging in them can have an influence on the way children function beyond learning to play an instrument or act. Her study revealed among other things, “The young people in these arts programs engage in lots of communication similar to the kind you would find in a venture capital company when everyone is sitting around the boardroom talking about the kind of project they want to develop. Or in a software company.” (talk given for East Bay Community Foundation, 1998).

When should children start performing?

How young is too young to start your child in performing arts? It depends on the programs available in your area and each particular child. If you worry that signing a child up for performing arts experience means turning into a stage mother or seeing your daughter slathered in excess makeup and questionable costumes for recitals, you will find there is a wide range of performing arts experiences available.

If you have a preschooler who’s bursting with energy, but you have no idea if she will even like dancing once she gets old enough to choose her own activities, invest in a local, casual dance program for a few years before heading down to Pittsburgh Ballet Theater.

Programs like Kindermusik cater to the youngest children—infants through age seven. A program like this offers an opportunity to experience the feel of making music and moving through space while encouraging language development and literacy readiness.

Some parents prefer starting their children with an instrument at an early age. The Suzuki method suggests parents begin listening to music with their children when they are babies and that parents should learn the instrument their child will play. That is so the parent can teach the child in between lessons. The idea is that children learn language from their parents through informal, but consistent repetition and the same can happen with music. The commitment on behalf of the parent makes this choice a little difficult for some.

A quick Google search along with word of mouth will help parents narrow down their choice if they are seeking a private instructional situation for their toddler, tween or teen.

Once you have an inkling that your child might blossom as a performer then you might look into more structured, intense program.

Emily and Scott Markel knew fairly early their daughter, Ellie, would excel and adore the opportunity to perform in front of a crowd.

Emily says, “She loved her school plays and was always putting on her own plays at home and on play-dates. I could see she enjoyed it and was always jockeying for the front row. It was clear Ellie wanted to perform.”

The Markels signed Ellie up for Act One Theater School when she was eight-years-old. “I would cringe sometimes when Ellie would want to put on plays and tried to be the center of attention, but then she went to Act One and there were 20 Ellies in her group and I knew she would fit in. It was perfect for her.”

Act One is structured so children attend once a week in the fall. They learn to read scripts, dance and participate in improvisational experiences. Then they audition for the play and spend the spring learning their parts and they finally perform the play.

Emily says, “The way everything is handled is nurturing versus being competitive. Everyone gets a part from the youngest to the oldest.”

Act One also grows with its students. As children mature and grow in expertise, Act One supports the older students in their quest for higher stakes auditions, professional interviews in New York and headshots. They help the teens create networks of support to succeed whether it’s in the field of theater or simply by having the benefits of an arts education work its way into other facets of life.

When asked if Act One would be suitable for children who might be shyer than Ellie, but still interested in theater, Emily says, “The kids learn all aspects of theater and it’s very encouraging for them. Some children were too shy to audition in front of 60 parents, but they were still in the play at the end of the year. All the children became comfortable on stage.”

While many arts programs are nurturing and worth the money and effort spent, there are others that may not be as good a value. Like anything else, parents need to know what they want out of a particular activity for a specific child and whether a given program can fulfill the expectations.

Some children will find performing arts opens up a new world to them or give them the sense of coming home. That can happen at age five for some and fourteen for others. Finding the right fit for your child may be as simple as a violin lesson down the street from an ex-musician or something more elaborate like Act One. The trick is finding that match and the gift is watching your child bloom when she does. w 

Kathleen Shoop is a freelance writer from Oakmont, PA.