Arts Integration

Using Theatrical Activities to Teach Problem-Solving

Students can participate in collaborative and engaging activities that promote critical-thinking skill development.

December 21, 2022
Highwaystarz-Photography / iStock

“Um… why is Aiden wrapping tinfoil around that other child’s body?”

That was the question my principal asked when she did a walk-through of my elementary theater room the other day. The happy chatter of fourth graders collaborating had drifted into the hallway, and curiosity drew her to investigate. Only a week earlier, she’d discovered us performing stage combat with pool noodles while discussing how Hamlet could have solved the problems of his dysfunctional family without the use of violence. 

This time, the class was working on fashioning costumes for a knight using only tinfoil and yarn. The students were hard at work, brows furrowed in concentration as they tried to figure out how to create the coolest armor without ripping up their piece of foil. As the “Keeper of the Foil,” I allotted them only one large piece to manipulate or mold in any way they chose. If they were too rough or didn’t plan things out beforehand, the students could wind up with a costume made only of string. 

“What a fun problem to solve!” My principal smiled before escaping back into the hallway, not realizing how true her statement was.

Creative Challenges Promote a Growth Mindset

Designing a knight’s armor out of tinfoil and string with a time limit of only 10 minutes is fun. Kids are learning about the process that a costume designer goes through when planning for a performance and collaborating on how to get the job done. Many will pick up on the real-world connection between math and measurement as they develop critical and creative problem-solving skills that they can use outside of my classroom. 

Creative challenges abound in the special area classes of elementary school. Specialists in physical education, art, music, library, and theater teach national or state standards while asking students to use their imaginations to solve various problems. While content knowledge is important and should support creative thinking, crucial life skills are being taught in these classrooms through creative means such as divergent thinking, judgment, and evaluation.

Special area classes also help shape a student’s creative mindset. When students believe their creative abilities can adapt and grow, they will put more effort into developing skills required for creativity. When they are provided with opportunities to fail and succeed, students learn the power of thinking about things in new ways.

How can you take advantage of this growth mindset and encourage creative chaos in your classroom or specials area? What are some creative problem-solving activities that teach collaboration and the area of study? Consider three simple options to get your students engaged.

1. Expert Groups

An expert group is where each student becomes an expert on one topic and then shares the information with others. This style of teaching is also called the jigsaw technique because each student has an essential part in putting the piece of the lesson or the “puzzle” together. There are lots of ways to set up these collaborative groups, and they are perfect for teaching nugget-sized information. 

I teach the life and times of Shakespeare to my students using this method. I break the class into groups of four to five students and assign jobs such as reader, materials gatherer, question asker, and timekeeper. Then, the students dive deep into learning by becoming an expert on one of the following topics or centers: pageant wagons, the Black Death, Elizabethan half masks, or the coat of arms.

Each center has a short passage to read explaining the historic information and a timed task to be completed by the whole group. For example, students read about Queen Elizabeth I, her love of the arts, and her fondness for masquerades. Using the materials provided, students are challenged to create an Elizabethan half mask. 

Once the time limit expires, the students pair with representatives from the other projects. They rotate through the centers, and the student who worked on each project shares what they learned and created. As students leave my room, I use an exit ticket strategy. Each student must individually relay to me one thing they learned from their “expert” group members. 

2. Building Challenge

Props help actors tell their story, but what happens when your prop disappears right before you take the stage? That’s the scenario I provide to my students before supplying them with the following materials: a piece of paper, a pencil, one long strand of tape, a straw, a paper plate, and a pair of scissors. Working with their group of four to five students, they create a prop of their choosing within a 15-minute time limit. 

I warn my students to be careful of how they use the materials because once they’re altered or changed, students can’t get a new one. With this challenge, I encourage them to use the first five minutes of the task to talk about what they might build or how they might use the materials. For example, just because you have one piece of tape doesn’t mean it can’t be cut into smaller pieces so that it goes further. Once the collaboration is done, the students present their prop and demonstrate how it can be used. 

3. Acting Challenge

Open scenes are a great opportunity for students to sharpen their creative problem-solving skills while working on the art of improvisation. Students are paired up and given a script with an A character and a B character. The lines are random and don’t give the actors much information about where the story is taking place, how the characters feel, or the characters’ backstories.

After the students read through the scenes several times, they must decide what happened prior to the scene’s start and where the characters are located. What makes this especially fun is that most of the class will have the same scene, but all of them will come up with a different scenario. This exercise helps students develop acting skills and improvisation, as well as skills used for writing narrative fiction.

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Filed Under

  • Arts Integration
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Critical Thinking
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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