Using Children's Theater to Teach Economics

Joyce A. Shotick

Everyone loves a play-particularly children. A play is a whimsical presentation of information about life. It can also serve as a vehicle by which abstract economic concepts can be explained to young people. The characters in a play may act out the difficulties of making economic decisions, demonstrating the emotions that a real person might experience in making these decisions. There is no doubt that stage settings, costumes, and performers captivate children. Once their attention is fixed, children can absorb valuable information about complex issues by observing the conflict, the emotions that actors portray, and the resolution of a particular situation.
A play provides a unique atmosphere for learning by serving as a diversion from the traditional classroom environment. Children enjoy the opportunity to relax and focus on what the characters are doing and saying. This less structured environment allows children to identify with the play's characters. As they become emotionally involved, children are likely to pay close attention in order to see how a conflict is resolved.

What is Children's Theater?
Children's theater goes one step further than a traditional play. Besides presenting a story, it offers many opportunities for the children in the audience to participate. When children volunteer to participate, their level of attention is greatly increased. They are more apt to listen, think, and respond to the actors. This process promotes learning.

One method of audience participation is for the actors to ask the children to "help" the hero or heroine by telling them about what they are seeing. Another method is to ask the children to think about experiences of their own that are similar to what the actors are portraying, and to share those experiences with everyone. This second approach is a powerful tool which may have far-reaching consequences.1 The play teaches the children indirectly through example, helping children to recall concepts with which they can identify.

Any amount of participation results in children's gaining new information or reinforcing their existing knowledge. A puppet play created by Anderson, Boyer, and Robidoux, for example, contained six economic concepts.2 Students who viewed the theater production tested approximately 30 percent higher on understanding those concepts than a similar student body who did not view the production. This project provided empirical evidence that theater contributes to student learning. Christine Redington concurs with this idea, and notes that plays with conflict focusing on current issues have tremendous impact on children's learning.3

"Barnyard Economics"
Teaching economic concepts to young children can be portrayed creatively through dramatics.4 One example is "Barnyard Economics," a play about economic decision making adapted from the Master Curriculum Guide in Economics/ K-25 and formerly titled "Pinky's New Bow Tie". This play was prepared for elementary students in our area by university students belonging to Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE). SIFE is a national organization for college students whose mission is to provide economic education to the community. Our SIFE students consisted of business, communication, home economics, theater, and education majors. They prepared for their roles in the play by making simple costumes of animal ears and noses.

The main character in "Barnyard Economics" is a precocious pig who skips school. What he learns from his fellow barnyard friends is that everyone-including parents-must make choices regarding the use of scarce resources. Children view a situation in which the pig is faced with the economic problem of scarcity, or of allocating scarce resources to unlimited wants. The pig confronts this difficulty in trying to decide which bow tie to buy when there are two he wants.

The pig's friends explain that every decision has an opportunity cost; in this case, it is the bow tie that the pig does not buy. The children learn that, similarly, parents must decide how to spend their money on the many items that family members want and need. One friend, the cow, explains that parents aren't being unreasonable when they do not buy all the things that their children want; rather, they must make decisions due to scarcity. Most of the children readily identified with this situation, and their teachers were able to build upon the notion of scarcity later in their classrooms.

Understanding that different people are involved in the production of goods is often a difficult task for young children. In "Barnyard Economics," the pig shows his ignorance about goods and services by telling his friends that the store clerk made a nice bow tie for him. The sheep and cow explain that the store clerk merely sold the bow tie in a market, and that the bow tie was actually produced by workers in a factory.

Productive resources is another complex concept for children to grasp. Learning that any product requires various limited resources is important to an understanding of our economy. The three types of resources-natural, human, and capital-are described by the animal characters in the play. This provides students with a broad idea of what a business needs to produce goods. By identifying with the pig, the children learned that it takes many different people performing various tasks to create a product.

Most children are able to quickly comprehend the concept of production of goods. The concept of services is more difficult to grasp due to its intangible nature. The pig in "Barnyard Economics" asks his friends about who produces services. The sheep then enlists help from the children in thinking of different people who provide services. In our case, their responses included the car repairman, the postman, doctors and nurses, and occasionally teachers. It was exciting to observe how quickly the children applied the information they learned from the play. This type of interactive exercise is crucial in helping students to assimilate concepts and retain the information.

Some of the children who saw the play were at-risk children who need encouragement to continue their schooling. When the pig in "Barnyard Economics" skips school, he pays the opportunity cost of remaining ignorant of economics-an important lesson reinforcing the idea that education will have benefits in the future. The college students who performed the play were sensitive to the classroom situation, and strongly urged all children to stay in school.

Making This Play Work in Your Classroom
There were two unique aspects in the presentation of "Barnyard Economics." First, a children's theater production with college students was an exciting way to present complex information and capture the children's attention. Second, the play offered many opportunities for its characters to involve children in the application of economic concepts. This interaction of the young children with the play's characters was a great aid in maintaining their interest. The advantages of having college students present children's theater were threefold. These students were eager to assist teachers in the community, many possessed some formal training in economics or education at the college level, and all were flexible and committed to sharing their talents with young students.

Teachers might adopt one of three approaches to using "Barnyard Animals" in their classrooms: as an introductory lesson, as supplementary material, or as a unit by itself.

Children's theater in which actors portray simple animals creates a comfortable setting for children to learn from the characters. Our students were fascinated by the reactions of the animals to the various economic situations they encountered. Elementary children want to learn about their environment, and in today's consumption-oriented society, many are already familiar with the role of consumer. The economics concepts introduced in "Barnyard Economics" provided children with a rationale for making purchasing decisions-and other important decisions as well. With the myriad of economic choices confronting young learners, it has become critical that they learn early in life the consequences of those choices. Through this humorous play, elementary school children began to understand some of their economic responsibilities.

1.Moses Goldberg, Children's Theater: A Philosophy and a Method (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1974).
2.D. Anderson, E. Boyer, and D. Robidoux, What is your Cobra E.Q.? (U.S. Department of Education-National Institute of Education). Available from: National Depository for Economic Education Awards, Milner 184, Illinois State University, Normal, IL.
3.Christine Redington, Can Theater Teach? (New York: Pergamon Press, 1983).
4.M. Bolenbaugh, "Learning Economics through Drama and Music" in Social Studies Journal 18 (1989).
5.Master Curriculum Guide K-2 (NY: Economics America, 1996).

About the Authors:
Joyce A. Shotick is Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Foster College of Business Administration of Bradley University.
Greg Walsko teaches at the University of Wisconsin- LaCrosse.