When two worlds come together: Young children’s language, literacy and numeracy development through creative, inclusive, theatre methods

Canning, Natalie and Gomez, Chris (2022). When two worlds come together: Young children’s language, literacy and numeracy development through creative, inclusive, theatre methods. The Open University, Milton Keynes.


This report presents the findings of research undertaken by the Open University’s Children’s Research Centre with Chickenshed Theatre Company and 3 schools in the London boroughs of Enfield and Haringey. The 3 year project funded through the charity of Sir Richard Whittington for which the Mercers’ Company is Corporate Trustee. It explores how creative, theatre based workshops can support children’s language literacy and numeracy for children who are on the edges of society. Statistics from the Department for Education state that only 55% of children from deprived backgrounds achieve their learning goals at 5 years old compared to 73% of other children (DfE, 2019). Haringey is the 4th most deprived borough of London, with Enfield in 9th. They both have diverse populations with over 350 languages spoken between them.

The purpose of the funded Chickenshed workshops is to not only support young children’s development and reduce the attainment gap for language, literacy and numeracy, but to instil a curiosity and love for learning through the use of songs, movement, rhymes, and music, assisted by puppets, role play and drama. Key aspects of children’s skills, capabilities, behaviours and wellbeing emerge in early childhood, therefore it is also significant to consider broader experiences of learning and development that the workshops facilitate (Magnuson and Duncan, 2016). Research indicates that it is important that pedagogy, especially for the most vulnerable children remains child-centred, and developmentally appropriate, with an emphasis on play based learning (OCED, 2015). However, the reception baseline assessed when children start school is narrowly focused on maths, literacy and language (DfE, 2020). The Chickenshed workshops aim to incorporate the development of these areas in playful and creative ways through their sessions. This arts based approach where children are empowered to explore and express their preferences and interests provides a platform for holistic development of the child. It is essential that any assessment of children in the early years looks at their development in all areas, and helps to inform educators about what has gone before as well as form a starting point for the future (Archer and Merrick, 2020).

The research followed the implementation of weekly Chickenshed workshops across 3 schools in total. In the first year Chickenshed recruited 2 schools located in Enfield to participate. Unfortunately, the project was disrupted in the second year by the closure of schools because of the global pandemic and one school could no longer continue. This was replaced by another school in neighbouring Haringey and those 2 schools completed the project in July 2022.
The findings were broader than the development of language, literacy and numeracy skills. Themes centred on children’s experiences, teacher and practitioner reflections and learning and development challenges. These were linked to the ways in which children are empowered through their experiences and considered how children participated, had opportunities to be heard and have ownership over their learning space.

The research has resulted in a number of recommendations recognising that theatre has a place in education and education has a place in theatre. The foundations that the project has started to build means that there is potential for work to continue on the transferability of Chickenshed workshop activities into the main teaching environment; to acknowledge the significance of children’s different experiences from home, school, and their community; and to recognise the significance of empowering children in playful interactions to support their learning and development in transferable life skills.

There is still work to be done in theatre based education understanding the requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage and mapping their work to those requirements. However this research demonstrates that there is a place for creative, inclusive theatre methods in early years education and beyond. The coming together of schools and Chickenshed has been a positive collaboration, developing new ways of working and perspectives in approaches to supporting young children’s learning. Schools see the links, benefits and potential of the Chickenshed workshops for the continuation of practice and teaching.

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