Drama Rules: Gaining Social Competence through Intrinsic Motivation

byMecca Burns, RDT-BCT

Everyday social situations are full of unspoken rules and tacit expectations. To thrive in the interpersonal realm, we have to read social cues. While some children intuitively grasp these subtleties, many find them bewildering and incomprehensible.

Dramatic play is structured by its own rules and codes. When children build a narrative together, they are negotiating a set of conventions and assumptions that hold the story together and make the play satisfying.

In drama these rules are implicit, just like in everyday life. The rules are encoded within the drama narrative, and their meaning is shared by the group members.

When children are caught up in imaginative play, they tend to be relaxed, energized and curious. They proceed with a spirit of adventure to tackle problems and unravel mysteries. Drama creates a stress-free zone where they can try on new roles and behaviors without negative consequences, because the situations are “not real”.

Yet even in a pretend story, there are many social cues to decode, decipher, and interpret. Is a certain character to be trusted? What is his or her intention? How can you tell, what are the clues? How can everyone’s ideas combine to solve the problem at hand, or create an even richer story?

As children engage with the world around them, they are actively constructing models in their minds. Their cognitive processes are shaped by their experiences and their attempt to make sense of those experiences. Children are natural meaning-makers. They are constantly imagining how things work, generating hypotheses and testing them out.

In drama therapy, we provide experiences that call for responses just a little beyond what they already know. The children tend to choose roles of important adults or other characters at a developmental level beyond their own. Thus they are motivated to use language and behavior ever more skillfully. The Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky called it a learner’s “zone of proximal development” -the level just beyond the one at which one can function on one’s own.

While children are enjoying this co-creative play, they are learning to blend their own speech and actions with those of their peers. Dramatic play requires constant negotiation and is a “profoundly challenging social event”. Yet because it is so intrinsically satisfying, children tend to interact successfully.

In the drama therapy groups, we take care to design an atmosphere that provides a balance between ease and challenge, so that children gain mastery of the social nuances that are essential to positive relationships in everyday life.

For more information on the drama therapy program, please contact Mecca Burns atcontactpresence@comcast.net.