I promised to enquire carefullyAbout a schoolmaster for the fair Bianca,And by good fortune I have lighted wellOn this young man, for learning and behaviorFit for her turn, well read in poetryAnd other books—good ones, I warrant ye.
As I see these articles floating around about parents whose children are going to college at tender ages like 12 (See more about that here), I am encouraged that my propensity to bring things like Shakespeare into the life of my toddler is not so much over-done as it is a good foundation. I think we often underestimate the mental capacity of our children, as well underestimating the good a solid foundation in deeper thought might do them. I'm not saying I think all children should start college by age 12. I am saying challenging our kids intellectually is good for them.
When it comes to the themes in Shakespeare, my toddler is not ready to experience the full force of things like ghosts and revenge that are dealt with in Hamlet, for example, but it is good to acknowledge that the same lessons I'm letting him learn by watching a Dora episode where the heroine defeats the evil troll and gets to cross the bridge in a jungle and completes her journey are the same lessons you can learn by reading the story of Rosalind in “As You Like It”. Rosalind dresses up, plays pretend, fights evil, and saves her brother. It's amazing! The concepts can definitely be tailored to toddlers, and I suggest telling the stories out loud. Then they get practice in acting, as well as a great liberal arts education!
5 Ways to Teach Shakespeare To Your Toddler (or young child)
All of these suggestions will require you, as the parent, to understand the basic tenants of the plays. If you're not a Shakespeare nut, or the old language turns you off, consider Cliff Notes, or an abridged version to get the basic storyline. Learning the text itself is important, but that level of scholarship can wait until later years when the child is old enough to wrestle the linguistics on their own. For now, we want to experience the stories, learn great history, and have fun being cultured little students. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
1. Make Your Own Abridged Book
Read Cliff Notes (yikes! Did an english major just say that?) Yes. Get the overview. I know how raising children goes. You may have time to read the whole play yourself (please do!) but if you are pressed for time, get the basics. Then share the abridged version with your kids. Create a story book by taking a scene from the play and drawing it on a piece of paper. Once you've drawn out several scenes, combine them to make a book you can read together.
2. Play Dress Up.
As I mentioned above with Rosalind in “As You Like It” , it is beyond the scope of a toddler's learning experience to share with them the gender theory surrounding a woman who pretends to be a man. However, the concept of dressing up and pretending to be something you're not is an excellent lesson for kids. Teach them about weapons, period costumes, castles, build a trebuchet and launch it. There are so many unit studies buried in the idea of dressing up to learn Shakespeare. Go wild.
3. Have a Stage Night
Parents: Watch the movie “Reign of Fire” Ok, so the movie is NOT toddler friendly. Do not watch this movie with your toddlers. It's an apocalyptic dragon movie that, as it turns out, might be a great movie night for you and the hubs after you play Shakespeare with toddlers all day. I Digress. Here's the point: In the movie the two lead characters act out a scene from Star Wars for a group of kids. Their demonstration of how to share a great story in a kid friendly way is a nice visual for parents who may not “get' how to act it out without including every detail. If you know the storyline of any Shakespeare play, you can perform your own “stage nights” at home for your family where you make your own costumes and perform your very own Shakespearean performance, right in your living room. Older children will enjoy helping out.
4. Puppet Show.
Making sock puppets (or paper bag puppets) of the main characters and acting out the basic premise of a play is art class, english, history, and drama class all rolled into one.
5. Go see a play.
There are many Shakespeare Festivals scattered about that you can take kids to go see. If you live anywhere near the Folger Shakespeare Library, please check them out. They even celebrate Shakespeare's birthday in grand style. Community events at libraries or other civic groups, are a great way to get engaged, get active, and learn Shakespeare.
Embrace learning! Even if your kids (or yourself) do not grow up to love heavy literature like Shakespeare, you are giving them a huge leg up on their future lives by exposing them to an author whose works are not only excellent writing examples, but Shakespeare has influenced our very vernacular today.
Want a free play synopsis to get you started? I've written out a short Family Stage Night Version of As You Like It that comes in Easy-To-Act-At-Home format. Enter your email and I'll send you a copy. Inside this guide, I have broken down the overall plot of the play into 10 short scenes designed for 2-4 players. Gather the kids, turn some old bed sheets into costumes, and start learning Shakespeare the fun way–by acting it out!
Write in the comments below and share with me how you are teaching Shakespeare at home. I can't wait to hear from you!