Theatre-in-Class: Channelising Curiosity and Creativity

At a time when education policies are pointing at making the content more relatable and the process more interesting, how does one talk about Gandhi and the freedom struggle in a way that is interesting to students in primary school?

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For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.

– Aristotle


There are multiple quotidian activities that we do without consciously noticing how our body does it, like brushing teeth, tying shoelaces, fidgeting with an object when trying to remember something, etc. This is because these activities are fed into our muscle memory. These are activities that we learned by doing and remember by doing. Psychomotor skills and psychomotor memory play an important role in learning. Art and art forms are a useful tool to tap into the mind and the body simultaneously while also incorporating entertainment and creative imagination. Art supplements the curriculum by catering to the multifaceted development of body and mind simultaneously, with minimal effort. This article looks at my efforts in using art, particularly theatre, in the teaching-learning process as a medium to generate and channelise curiosity, and as a medium of expression.

As an Associate with the Azim Premji Foundation, I have been exploring the teaching-learning process in GPS Rawatoni Bhilon ki Dhani, a primary school in Mahabar, Barmer. One fine cold morning in January, when the students of classes III – V came to class, I was drawing a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi on the board. I asked them, What do you know about this man?’ The objective was to introduce humanitarian and constitutional values like honesty, non-discrimination, non-violence and self-dependency to the students, by using the life events and teachings of Gandhi, leading to an exhibition of what they learn around Martyr’s Day. However, responses, like Gandhi was richer than Ambani’, Gandhiji was Modi’s uncle’, and Madam, who is this? Show us Simba!’ stalled my plan.

How to get 7 – 11-year-olds interested in someone who lived more than six decades before them; or the values he stood for, before making them think about why those values are important? Why would they listen to what Gandhi thought and did? Why would it matter to them? At a time when education policies are pointing to making the content more relatable and the process more interesting, how does one talk about Gandhi and the freedom struggle in a way that is interesting to students in primary school? For them to follow honesty and non-discrimination consciously, these had to be introduced to them by placing these in their context, from something or someone near them, some source that they could relate to and trust. In school, these sources could be teachers or media, such as film clips online. However, this would still not generate the need’ to know in the students. Sigmund Freud has said, Children are completely egoistic, they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them.’ If the curiosity of the students is channelised as a need, the students may take the initiative to know more and satisfy the need, learning in the process. This can be done through art forms and creative modes of expression in the classroom. With this understanding, I wanted the children to explore Gandhi in different contexts through role-plays and learn more about him. 

Plan and pre-work

With the help of the two primary school teachers at the school, I planned an event to showcase children’s exposure and experience with Gandhian values. We planned a poster exhibition, drama and other cultural activities and invited members of the community to this event.

The plan for the event included an elaborate process of context building through 40 days leading up to the event. The students were shown videos of Gandhi – snippets from his life (Salt March etc) and several others on honesty, non-discrimination, non-violence, self-dependency, etc., featuring famous cartoon characters and animals. These were curated by us from YouTube. The students watched these with interest and would comment on things, like a child doing a wrong deed, and discuss amongst themselves.

Following this, the teachers would conduct a dialogue with the students. What happened in the story? Why would you think he/​she did that? What would you have done? Wouldn’t you have become angry if someone told you something rude like that? What should you ideally do? Do you usually come to teachers or parents? Questions like these would be asked and discussed with the students. All their responses would be acknowledged and responded to, establishing space for respect in the classroom. Their daily practices, like failing to use the dustbin, skipping the cleaning of the room for a day or two, hitting each other, lying about not coming to school etc., were pointed out and discussed. Good practices, like reporting to the teacher instead of resorting to violence were also taken up and appreciated. This was followed by their performances or sharing of what they learnt on the selected day. Theatre was chosen as the medium for expression.

The students had been introduced to theatre-in-class before. I found that theatre-in-class connects the academic content to how they use their bodies to emote, and therefore, makes it more relatable to the students. It also directs their energy productively and improves the bond between them and that with the teacher. Through theatre, the students explore themselves and learn by themselves, with just prompts from the teacher. Following are the ways theatre was introduced in the classroom:

  1. Doctor says: While this is a common game that is used in language teaching, particularly for action words, this was also used by me with the students of classes III‑V to practice classroom discipline. I would also club it with a speed game. The students had to run around inside a circle at speeds varying from 0 to 5, with 0 standing for stop’ and 5 for the fastest speed. On hearing an instruction, such as Doctor says Rabbit”’, the children would pose as rabbits. They would be asked to pose as animals or characters they had read about, or even letters of the alphabet. This way they explored their bodies, as well as associated English words with bodily movements.
  2. Dramatic enactment of books: Students would be divided into groups and given a book to read and then enact it. They would find creative ways to represent animals and add dialogues by themselves. This also improved camaraderie among the students.
  3. Coming up with contextual storylines and presenting a skit on a given topic: Students picked different emotions and came up with scenarios where those emotions, like anger, happiness, and sadness, were expressed.
  4. Gibberish rhymes: Students recited these with variations in pitch and exaggerated expressions.
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    Students demonstrate calm in Doctor says’ game

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    Students enact a scene from the book Maharani, the cow’. The characters are villagers, the cow in the middle of the road, vehicles in the background and a traffic police person with a stick.

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    Students made emojis after learning the words associated with different emotions.

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    Students set up a Birthday party mock-up to represent the emotion happy’

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    Students reading a book and deciding the roles to enact it

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    Practising the play in which Gandhi is thrown out of the train.

The event

The event aimed at helping students gain confidence and demonstrate to the community activities that take place in the school.

On the day of the event, the children performed the plays that they had practised, bhajans and songs they had learnt, and also took time to read posters on Gandhi and the freedom struggle, displayed along the corridor of the school. Some parents and Azim Premji Foundation members also attended the event. Two members of the faculty from Azim Premji University, who were visiting Barmer at that time also visited the school and interacted with the students about what they knew and understood about Gandhi. Some teachers from a nearby school also came to the event.

During the event, the students performed without hesitation. They were not intimidated by unknown adult faces in the audience nor did the possibility of being wrong inhibit them. What brought this change? It was not the familiarity that they had with me, because there were people other than me on the day of the event. It could not be the simplicity of the content because they had practised only for a day. What made them confidently walk up to the stage and be themselves?

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    A student posing as Gandhi on the day of the event on Constitutional Values

I see two reasons for it. The children had been provided enough space for expression, which became a space for exploration and that boosted their morale and confidence and eliminated any inhibitions or shyness. The introduction of an art form in the class, theatre, in this case, created this space. The children learn through their bodies, directed by themselves, like they did as infants. There was no judgment of right or wrong since the expression was imaginative and creative, it acknowledged the student’s perspectives, giving them the autonomy of expression as well as learning. This helped them express curiosity, thereby allowing them to take some control of their own learning making it more interesting. With such autonomy, the students could direct their course of learning by choosing what to learn and how. This allowed the opportunity to introduce to them some remote concepts or information which they asked for. For example, during the context-building hours on Gandhian values, the students demanded to see a video of how Gandhi was shot and asked what happened to Godse after that.

Having this space of expression and exploration, and an event like this in their school premises created an atmosphere of excitement and expectation. This was a break from the regular schedule of classes. An event that reassured them that efforts are being made to listen to them, to appreciate their efforts and their capabilities, thereby encouraging them to do so more. This practice has to be slowly induced in the students to make them more expressive, and more importantly to encourage them to think beyond the textbooks. This, added to the control over what they are learning, boosted their morale and confidence and eliminated any inhibitions of incapabilities or shyness. Such an avenue becomes important because it allows the students to experiment with their minds and bodies and acknowledge their own curiosity. This when extended to academics, allows them to make mistakes, and builds the attitude to explore more to know more. Such events that pose avenues for sharing the learning of the students also help the teachers track and assess the students in terms of their learning, and skills so that specific curated attention could be given to students as required.

Theatre involves all the language skills that are aimed to be taught in a classroom — listening, speaking, reading and writing. However, I have realized the additional importance of art and art forms as a medium of expression that opens not only the physical space but also the mental liminal space, letting out the curiosity that tends to get caged in a space of formal education. This applies not only to theatre but any art that involves the body because art helps in channelising both mental and physical energy and focussing it on a particular thing or action. Associating a particular piece of abstract information with an action and repeating it also aids in remembering that information better as it gets connected to more concrete muscle memory. To top it all comes the cherry on the cake- having fun while learning.


Sigmund Freud (2010). The Interpretation of Dreams. Basic Books. p.268


Swathy Nambi, Resource Person, Azim Premji Foundation, Barmer, Rajasthan