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‘Whoosh It’ – How To Have Fun With Shakespeare In Primary School

Make sure your pupils’ initial introduction to Shakespeare leaves them wanting to get to know him better, says Helen Mears...

  • ‘Whoosh It’ – How To Have Fun With Shakespeare In Primary School

How did you first encounter Shakespeare? Think back to that moment now. Was it sitting in a classroom reading barely comprehensible text aloud? Was it on the stage or screen listening to someone with a cut class accent reciting the words with an unwavering reverence? Or did you discover him by some other means? A passionate teacher? A parent or relative who couldn’t wait to share him with you?

First encounters with William Shakespeare are crucial; they shape future attitudes and perceptions of him. A negative encounter can put someone off for life, a positive one can be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Stand Up For Shakespeare manifesto is already established in the education system with its three key tenets: “Do it on your feet; see it live; start it earlier”. ‘Starting it earlier’ can easily mean introducing Shakespeare at Key Stage 1 and then developing and building on that work through Key Stage 2. Children of this age have a natural predilection for rhythm, rhyme and storytelling – these elements are inherent to Shakespeare’s work and are an excellent hook into the plays.

Get physical

One thing that is universal in the growing trend towards teaching Shakespeare in more engaging ways is to ensure that he isn’t made to seem excessively special or important. The pleasure of the plays, particularly in performance, is their joyous irreverence, their imaginative play with language and their rich characterisations. These are elements that can be utilised in teaching Shakespeare to very young children. It is also productive to approach the texts with a drama focus rather than an English one, making the topic more fun and accessible. The Department for Education’s Shakespeare For All Ages and Stages publication suggests that storytelling, improvisation and role play be the focus of KS1 work while KS2 work can develop aspects of performance and dramatic approaches with cultural visits encouraged.

With the youngest primary children, an active and physicalised approach to the plays is recommended. A ‘Whoosh’ is an effective way to achieve this – this is an activity in which everyone stands in a circle; the teacher reads a synopsis of the play and the children are encouraged to enter the story and act out the actions that are being described. Examples of Whooshes are available in the RSC Teachers Toolkit for Primary Teachers, which should be available in school. Once the pupils have a sense of the story you can begin to work with small scenes or extracts from the play.

There are particular plays which lend themselves well to working with young children for differing reasons. The Tempest can be approached in at least two different ways. The first is to explore the storm scene at the beginning of the play, an activity described by the RSC’s Joe Winston in the Journal of Aesthetic Education in 2012. Children can be encouraged to recreate the storm using a range of percussive sounds and through vocalisations based on snippets of wording from the play itself. The Boatswain’s lines are short and exclamatory and can be easily chanted; a cloth or parachute can be used to simulate the tempestuous waves and some children could take the roles of Ariel and his weather spirits raising the storm. This is an activity that would work well outside, particularly on a windy day. Winston also explored the relationship between Prospero and Caliban via the angry language exchanged between the two. Children were split into two groups who used snippets of the insults from the text itself or those they had created. He believed that trading such insults in a controlled environment allowed children to safely experiment and play with slightly darker elements of language, something they naturally enjoy doing.

Feel the rhythm

Another way into Shakespeare’s work is to focus on rhyme and rhythm. While most of Shakespeare’s works are written in blank verse, he does use prose and other rhythms for particular effects and purposes, and one of these is particularly appealing to children. The witches in Macbeth speak in trochaic tetrameter (four pairs of a stressed followed by an unstressed beat) and this is a rhythm familiar through nursery rhymes such as Mary, Mary Quite Contrary and the opening lines of Humpty Dumpty. Shakespeare uses the rhythm to distinguish these supernatural beings from the play’s human characters and the chant-like sound of the language will feel natural to children.

As an introductory activity to Macbeth, Banquo’s description of the witches in Act I, Scene III can be used as a stimulus to encourage children to use their bodies to visualise the witches and to move around the space perhaps with added vocalisations. The ‘double, double, toil and trouble’ segment of the play is perfect to use with children owing to the chant-like use of trochaic tetrameter. The teacher can read the spell itself with the children joining in for the refrain, perhaps setting the words to a simple tune. Again, this activity would work well outside – a field or playground could become the witches’ blasted heath and children could collect items to use in their own version of the potion which can then also be chanted together and then perhaps written into their own version of the spell. The introduction of props, masks or other elements of costume could be used to bring added visual richness and the activity could also be used as a stimulus to a discussion of the nature of witches and to consider the impact on Macbeth of listening to their spells and prophecies.

These ideas are just a start. There are other plays which can be as easily adapted to use with primary aged children; the important things to remember are the focus on drama and performative elements, and giving children the chance to work with even very short extracts or text scraps of Shakespeare’s original language. Look for the characters or aspects of language that will appeal to your pupils – and you will be well on your way to making their first encounter with Shakespeare a positive one.

9 Brilliant Shakespeare resources for primary teachers

  1. Springboard Shakespeare (Ben Crystal)
  2. Transforming the Teaching of Shakespeare with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Joe Winston)
  3. Creative Shakespeare; The Globe Education Guide to Practical Shakespeare (Fiona Banks)
  4. Teaching Shakespeare (Rex Gibson)
  5. The Globe Playground Website
  6. The RSC Online Resources
  7. RSC Teacher Toolkit for Primary
  8. British Shakespeare Association Teaching Shakespeare Magazine
  9. Shakespeare for All Ages and Stages

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