Interactive theatre doesn’t just help keep kids positively engaged for a few hours – it opens the door to a lifetime of curiosity and learning. 

Something magical happened at our Project: Oggbots show for families this autumn half term. And we’re not talking about alien spaceships landing in Bloomsbury and Sussex, where we held the on-street adventures (though this may have happened, at least in the imaginations of the kids attending).

It wasn’t that 11-year-olds who previously showed no interest in science were asking for electronic kits for Christmas. That was fantastic, of course, and one of the ideas behind the show. But what was even more remarkable, from our standpoint, was disruption.

Through the power of their own imaginations, the kids re-wrote the maps of their towns and cities, and in turn rewrote the maps of their thinking; taking familiar ground and turning it into something spontaneous and unique to their vision.

A door to a library they were told was just a door, was in fact a secret entrance. But an entrance to what, leading to where? The loud bangs heard the night before weren’t cause by a storm, but by the Oggbots spaceship crashing into earth. What did the ship look like? The agent chasing them through the streets was in fact a double agent, an ally who was, all the while, protecting the little robot aliens from falling into the hands of shady government forces – or was he?

The magic arose from these young people thinking for themselves, seeing and hearing for themselves and judging for themselves – rather than following a single, pre-determined path to an answer already prepared for them. Rather than give them the answers, we let them ask the questions.

Stunning starts

In the UK, we see this focus on playful, interactive learning kicking in with earnest during the early years of education, and to brilliant effect. Our infant and primary schools talk about ‘stunning starts’ to their termly themes.

One such school here in Sussex carefully arranged for – perhaps invited – a creature to lay an egg in the playground over the weekend earlier in the year. After a moment of nervousness, the kids’ natural curiosity set in and soon they were launching into a well-thought-out investigation; coming up with their own theories about where the egg came from and how it arrived in their playground. (It hatched the following weekend, leaving footprints out of the school grounds.)

The intention to nurture instinct and imagination remains as children get older, but it’s not always acted upon. There are time constraints, a lack of support and facilities in schools and fears over how to deal with the perceived mess and chaos that can come with 30 kids going through a more ‘creative’ learning experience.

One junior school pupil we know told us he spent a couple of lessons designing a smoothie, thinking about everything from ingredients to texture; but, disappointingly, he never got the opportunity to make it. It was a lost opportunity, a waste of time, a turn off.

We know instinctively that learning through experience – and through topic-based, blended subjects – increases engagement and retention. And how much more we learn when we’re active, engaged and hands-on. Better still, when we’re excited.

Better results in class

At Root Experience, we see this in the outcomes of our drama and literacy work work with schools, which bears out not only in better individual engagement but also in children achieving better results in class.

We also see this in our adult projects and in our facilitation work. Because we don’t stop playing when we grow older; we just need to make more effort to do so – and perhaps a little bit of convincing. Big kids in Manchester revelled in the knowledge that activities at this summer’s Playful Learning Conference were grounded in robust research and working practices – proven to be beneficial to their learning and progress as individuals, professionally and personally.

At Cambridge University, fun is a serious business. Its Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) was established this time last year with a £4 million grant from none other than the LEGO Foundation and it facilitates Professorships of Play in Education, Development and Learning.

So even some of our longest-established seats of learning acknowledge that the rote method isn’t the most efficient way to assimilate information as individuals, and truly understand the world around us. This top-down approach to learning doesn’t allow for questioning (yet questioning makes understanding) and there’s no getting it wrong to understand what makes it right.

Making learning more memorableWhether in the classroom, lecture hall or workplace, a good dose of hilarity and a dash of adrenaline can help to make a learning experience memorable. It’s about getting involved – be it making a smoothie or building a robot alien – getting it wrong, finding out why then solving the issue. Navigating through the streets re-imagined, working alongside the crazy professor, mistrusting the agent then turning that around. 

Not only does this approach make for a wonderful learning experience, it also inspires children to actively seek out more learning – and to continue to do so as adults.

One of parents attending Oggbots, Sarah Ryman, was so fired up about the effect it had on both her daughter and herself that she went on to write a blog about it. “The kids were left with a real buzz for science without the feeling that it had anything to do with school or education,” she told us.

It’s hard not to feel passionate when you see just how much purpose you can take from play. We believe it’s the key to transforming UK education, to inspiring children to get engaged and involved in core subjects, from science and technology to literacy and numeracy, but also in themselves and one another.

Please help us to inspire more kids by sharing this post among your online communities and with anyone who you think may be interested in what we do. We want to engage more kids, more often. And, we’re not afraid to say, we adults also want more opportunities to play.

Want to hear about our upcoming children’s events? Sign up for our newsletter