By C.L. Shoemaker, Oct. 8, 2018
Recent research in neurology and education suggests parents and educators can introduce Shakespeare to children at a young age. While it may seem surprising, research into language learning reveals that children, and even older youth, are at an optimal place in their neurodevelopment to engage with and learn the language of the Bard.
Since children’s brains are able to form language connections faster, introducing Shakespeare, could increase their vocabulary as early as five years old.
Research into neuroplasticity indicates that children’s brains have an extraordinary ability to functionally and physically change, or reconfigure, in response to environmental stimulus.
While the majority of research into language development focuses on the early stages of infant to toddler growth, language acquisition, vocabulary learning and context awareness kick into hyperdrive during late elementary to middle school, making these years ideal for introducing Shakespeare.
Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Gregory Doran endorses the importance of early introduction, rebutting fears of comprehension difficulty by focusing on the simple power of Shakespeare’s stories.
Dorand notes that “even the youngest children can have their lives transformed by seeing a Shakespeare play, and they are not put off by the complexity of the language.”
An increasing number of educators in the field are beginning to side with Doran, noting that high school is far too late for a Shakespeare introduction.
At it’s best the work of Shakespeare, through the magic of storytelling, and the impact of deep truths, builds bridges into young peoples’ imaginations.
The positive benefits of early Shakespeare introduction are many.
In her thesis (2013) for Georgetown University titled “Introducing Shakespeare Early: Why, When, and How to Teach Shakespeare to Elementary and Middle School Students,” Angela Ramnanan writes that Shakespeare can increase a student’s confidence, literary abilities, lower anxiety and incite a life-long love for literature.
Therefore teaching Shakespeare in the elementary and early middle school years, where students have a love of learning, is vital.
Other Shakespeare and educational experts argue for Shakespeare without a condescending approach, noting children can understand the Bard at a basic level without being spoon-fed his works or handed a modern English translation.
Jacqui O’Hanlon, RSC’s director of education, says that children shouldn’t be patronized, or saddled with imposed learning limitations: “When you’re at primary school, nobody has told you Shakespeare is difficult. The earlier we start with children, the more is possible. And there isn’t a play that you can’t do.”
In addition, live theatre performances help by captivating their audience with verbal, visual and auditory cues.
Julie Henry, the education reporter with The Telegraph, reports that scientists, psychologists and English academics at Liverpool University have found that even the more difficult and unconventional prose, such as Shakespeare’s use of nouns as verbs, or pronouns as nouns, can challenge the brain and promote new neurological connections. This neurological activity, or “lighting up” of the brain, can cause a higher level of contemplation and encouraged further reading.
In addition to his neurologically activating text, Shakespeare also created ten percent (or possibly more. Scholars still debate the exact number) of the words he wrote.
For children and youth, whose brains are still developing, his work provides a linguistic playground where the brain absorbs language and constructs new connections. Live theatre itself also adds to the learning curve. Colourful costumes, engaging actors, special effects, coupled with the physicality of experiencing live theatre, all add to a Shakespeare production, and truly captivate a child.
The educational benefits of Shakespeare are for adults too. Research published in 2017 by Dr. Berken et al. in the journal of Neuropsychologia, revealed that neuroplasticity can continue into adulthood through alternate neuron pathways. The development is not as immediate or innate as in one’s youth, but neurological changes are still possible. So, no slacking off adults. Shakespeare is also essential for you too!
This weekend when you consider a family outing, head to the Stratford Festival and take in one of the excellent offerings for the whole family.
I would suggest “The Tempest.” Shakespeare’s unique play, which involves two young characters (Miranda and Ferdinand) is presented in a fantasy, fairy tale approach. Linking magic, fairies and gorgeous visual effects, the production will mesmerize and entice young and old alike. If your children are more mature and interested in history, political order, rulers, and betrayal, then “Julius Caesar” offers intrigue and a murder that will provide much to discuss. These plays don’t shy away from mature subject matter and big questions, however children can examine the plays and learn from them with the guidance of a parent or other adult.
Before attending a production elsewhere check with the theatre about age requirements and a production’s age guidelines. Other excellent Shakespeare works I would recommend include “Cymbeline,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like it” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” all available at your local library on DVD.
So take the kids to see some Shakespeare; you can change their future forever.
Corrie Shoemaker is a recent University of Waterloo PhD graduate. She had the honour to work alongside the Stratford Festival of Canada and Bard on the Beach while researching Canadian identity on the Shakespeare stage. Her first novel “The Frenchman’s Daughter,” a historical mystery set in 1890s France and England, will be published in 2019.You can follow Corrie at her website The Write Stuff: Literature with Charm.