Child Drama Debate Considered: Why Process and Product Can Exist Together — ESSAY

Submitted as M.A. coursework for NYU Steinhardt — 10 December 2007

Child Play and the drama process are often considered the central focus of a drama workshop with children. However, Child Drama and the performance product cannot be dismissed entirely. A consideration of the definitions of Child Play and Child Drama, a comparison of drama philosophies of Henry Caldwell Cook, Peter Slade, and Brian Way, and a look at the process versus product debate in Educational Theater will illustrate the point that a public sharing of creative work benefits a child. Though the process is ultimately most important in a child’s learning, the delicate balance of process and product will benefit the child most and can be achieved through Child Drama.

In his 1917 publication The Play Way, Henry Caldwell Cook wrote: “It must have occurred to everyone that since a child’s life under his own direction is conducted all in play, whatever else we want to interest him in should be carried on in that medium, or at the very least connected with play as closely as possible” (2). Cook considered the educator or director to be “the Playmaster” and that the goal of the Playmaster was to “outline scheme by all means, but leave the details to the hour in which it shall be told us what we shall do” (Cook 3). Ultimately, Cook says that his idea of the Play Way was to loosely structure dramatic workshops that focused on play and resulted in unintentional learning. He wrote that “the Play Way is not a bunch of contrivances for making scholarly pursuits pleasurable, but the active philosophy of making pleasurable pursuits valuable” (Cook 8). He also wrote that the “claim here put forward [in using the Play Way] is not for the destination, but chiefly for the journey” (Cook 8). Cook considered play to be the process and the product in his work with children, and he used this philosophy in his English classes at The Perse School where he was posted from 1911–1915 and 1919–1933 (he spent the interim fighting in World War I) (Bolton 28).

Cook’s teaching philosophy was revolutionary within the field of Education and Drama during his time. He used play and dramatic activity to further the learning of his pupils, and he emphasized the importance of playmaking and the presentation of theater for young boys during a fragile period in England’s history. In fact, he emphasized an active study of Shakespeare and the use of the platform stage in his classroom. The idea of Drama in Education did not yet exist, and his teaching methods seemed to promote “nonsense” in a time of war (Bolton 28). Though Cook received a mix of criticism and praise for his methods from his contemporary educators and administrators, he undoubtedly paved the way for practitioners like Peter Slade and Brian Way who would explore using play in their own individual careers in education and drama years later.

By the 1930s, the idea that play and education can and should co-exist was beginning to find popularity and acceptance. An educator named Susan Isaacs introduced the use of play corners for pre-school classrooms at The Malting House School (Bolton 60). She supported Imaginative Play because it promoted inquiry, developed skill, lessened inner tension, and encouraged hypothetical thinking in the children (Bolton 61). Within her work, she differentiated between Realistic and Imaginative Play, stating that playing make-believe (Imaginative Play) was an act of “constructive imagination” and gave the players a sense of ownership of knowledge (Bolton 64). In his recent publication Acting in Classroom Drama, theater practitioner Gavin Bolton suggests that this idea set forth by Isaacs could actually be the distinguishing feature of Theater (61). The moment play becomes imaginative it transforms into Theater. An audience could watch the children at play and consider it acting.

While Susan Isaacs was busy at The Malting House School, a man named Peter Slade was just beginning his career. In 1932, Slade formed Children’s Theater Company, the first professional theater for children in London.[1] After years of acting, directing, and producing theater for and with children, Slade suffered a war injury and was hospitalized. After his hospital stay, he began to study the idea of Child Play and Dramatherapy. He created the Pear Tree Players, a group that brought drama to schools and to youth clubs. Though he may be most recognized for his work with Dramatherapy and his 1995 publication Child Play: Its Importance For Human Development, Slade also introduced the idea that Child Drama was in itself an art form and that it went beyond just play.

Peter Slade differentiated between Projected Play and Personal Play. His ideas were similar to Susan Issac’s Realistic versus Imaginative Play, yet it transitioned to his philosophy of Child Drama. Slade defined Projected Play to be “play of the intellect,” wherein the focus was on “beloved objects” (Child Play 2). Personal Play was play that allowed the play experience to remain with the child after the play action was finished (Child Play 3). Projected and Personal Play together would allow a child to grow intellectually and imaginatively, and the combination of both play would “balance the personality” of the child (Child Play 3). From the outside, Slade’s Personal Play and Isaac’s Imaginative Play contained similar qualities. In both cases, Slade’s opinion that imitation is irrelevant and identification is paramount rings true (Bolton 130). The child will benefit from a combination of both kinds of play, and the lasting experience is what matters most. This could be achieved using Child Drama.

The ultimate goal in Slade’s work both in Child Drama and in Dramatherapy was experiential learning for the child. Of Child Drama, he wrote that “the meaning of anything created did not have to be sensible, worthwhile, significant, moral or useful;” the fact that the experience occurred was important (Bolton 137). Though the play experience and the dramatic workshop allow children to experience play together and build fellowship, Slade’s philosophy suggests that Personal Play can further the child’s learning more than just Projected Play. In his 1954 publication Child Drama, Slade wrote: “Child drama is an Art in itself” (105). Slade believed that Child Play could grow into Child Drama, and Child Drama could eventually grow into Theater. The question then became what is the difference between Drama and Theater as it pertains to children? And is a differentiation necessary?

Brian Way would argue that the difference between Drama and Theater lies with the audience. Drama, according to Way, is the experience shared by the participants, whereas Theater is the communication between actors and an audience (Bolton 148). Way considered Slade to be one of his major influences, and he certainly used play in his praxis, however, he did not agree that Child Drama was an art. Gavin Bolton described Way’s dramatic work as “spontaneous, short-lived and not for repeating” (158). Way’s focus seemed more on improvisation and play; he suggested that Child Drama was not an art but a “recipe for lesson content” (Bolton 149).

Way did not consider Child Drama separate from dramatic activity. In fact, he considered Drama to be “concerned with the individuality of the individual” (Bolton 150). While Way agreed with Slade that Child Drama was beneficial to the child in terms of Human Development, he did not appreciate it as an art. In the end, Way’s philosophy is probably more in tune with that of Winifred Ward whose work focused on Creative Dramatics and the idea that Drama equals Structured Play. Way believed there was a distinct separation of Drama and Theater with children. In the preface to his 1981 publication Audience Participation: Theater for Young People, Way wrote: “I have had two distinct yet ever interweaving occupations — Children’s Theater and Drama in Education.” Though occupations in both fields exist for Way, he distinguishes the two as separate yet “interweaving.” Could the two exist within a single field?

Despite the suggestion that Way’s philosophy is more in tune with that of Winifred Ward, it cannot be overlooked that Way’s distinction between Children’s Theater and Drama in Education could be considered what Slade calls Child Drama. A combination of Theater and Drama in Education within the form of Child Drama would need then to be considered within the Process versus Product debate.

Most theater practitioners would agree that play and process are more important for the child than product. However, sharing a final product benefits the child too and should not be overlooked as integral to the child’s learning experience. Slade suggested that Child Drama combines Child Play and Theater in its own way and is a viable art form. There is value in the performance opportunity for a student within Child Drama, and it has an important place in Educational Theater that many practitioners dismiss. A public sharing of the child’s work allows the audience to praise the child, simultaneously recognizing and affirming his artistic creation. So long as the teacher/director sets the stage for performance as a means of sharing rather than for a rehearsed play production, the audience should understand that critique and assessment are secondary to dialogue and reflection. The student will feel proud, skilled, and accomplished by the challenge of presenting himself to an audience. He will gain social skills, confidence, and self-esteem throughout the entire dramatic experience because his hard work (and his learning process) culminates in a final product.

The larger debate then does not lie in Process versus Product, but Drama versus Theater. Many practitioners would quickly end the debate and close the discussion, taking Brian Way’s definition to heart — the difference lies in the presence of an audience. However, there lies a more interesting discussion if you consider Slade’s belief that Child Drama is its own art form. Cannot Child Drama have an audience? Because the audience is present, must we then call it Children’s Theater? As Way suggested, Children’s Theater is in and of itself another art form. What then is the answer? Regardless of philosophy or praxis, every theater practitioner can agree that art is created to be shared and to promote thought and dialogue. Child Drama can lead to this goal, so yes it is art. Slade himself differentiated between Drama and Theater, yet Child Drama stands on its own and should be considered within its own standards, rules, and characteristics. A successful teacher/director can use play and Child Drama to find the delicate balance of process and product so that a child can have a more rewarding learning experience.

[1] The following biographical information was found in Peter Slade’s obituary, posted online at:,,1286982,00.html.

Carolyn Marie Wright hails from upstate New York and is currently based in Phoenix where she serves as Theatre Director & English Teacher at Brophy Prep and Artistic Director of Humanity Play Project. Proud member of AEA, SAG-AFTRA, AATE, and Arizona Theatre Company’s Cohort Club.



Content by Carolyn Marie Wright. Artistic Director of Humanity Play Project. Theatre Director & Teacher at Brophy College Prep. Member of SAG–AFTRA and AEA. Editor of ElevAATE.

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Carolyn Marie Wright

Artist & Educator. 🎭🎥📝 Artistic Director of Humanity Play Project. Member of SAG–AFTRA and AEA. Editor of ElevAATE.