The Play’s the Thing: “Spontaneous Theater” with Mixed Ages By Faith Collins

The Play’s the Thing: “Spontaneous Theater” with Mixed Ages

By Faith Collins

What can we do to promote imaginative play in young children?  How can we encourage and facilitate children playing together in ways that everyone enjoys?  How do we help integrate the play of mixed-age groups?  How can we increase our enjoyment of spending our time with the children?  There are many answers to each of these questions, but one way I’ve found to affect all of these is to engage in what I call “spontaneous theater” with the children.

During free-play time, I find myself coming gently in and out of the children’s play.  When things are going well, I make myself “invisible,” folding the laundry, working in the garden, or sitting with a handwork project or a glass of iced tea.  When the children need a little extra help interacting kindly, I may step in and make a suggestion (“If there’s no room in your house, why don’t you pass her some tea out the window?”) or perhaps I give a child a task to do.  Then mostly I can “disappear” again.  But when I find myself stepping in again and again, when children can’t quite figure out how to settle into their play, then one of the tools in my toolbelt is spontaneous theater.

Spontaneous theater might start with me “being reminded” of a story that the children and I all know well.   Or it might start with me describing what I see happening, and then helping to form it slightly with a song or a rhyme.  One day a four-year-old girl is lying under the climbing dome, pretending to be asleep, when suddenly she jumps up and runs off as fast as she can.  “She’s awake!  And off she goes!” I announce.  This inspires a 3-year-old boy to imitate her, lying down and then jumping up and running away as well.  “He’s awake!  And off he goes!” I announce.  The 2-year-olds come over, interested in what’s going on. 

Soon there are half-a-dozen children all pretending to be asleep under the climbing dome, sometimes popping up and running away.  I announce each one.  Soon I see that the “sleeping” in a row is becoming more exciting than the running, and I’m a little nervous about so many children being so close together.  I say, “So many children are sleeping…just like Snow White.”  And I start to sing a little song that I make up as I go:  “Snow White, Snow White, sleeping in your bed.  Snow White, Snow White, sleeps like she is dead.  Who will wake her up my dear?  Someone will, so never fear.”  I give each child a stroke on the head. Baby Quinn, age 19 months, wanders over.  “Maybe a kiss will wake this princess,” I say.  Quinn leans down and sweetly kisses his older sister, but she refuses to wake up.  “Will she wake up?” I wonder out loud.  “No, this Snow White is sleeping for a hundred years.”  A 2-year-old nearby jumps up.  “You’re not sleeping for a hundred years!”  I exclaim.  “She’s awake!  And off she goes!”

The next day, the children are clamoring for more.  “Snow White!  Snow White!” they cry.  I can’t quite remember the song I had made up the day before, but I start singing, and they excitedly run under the climbing dome to fall asleep.  On this day the children all stay asleep until they are awakened.  Baby Quinn isn’t interested in being the prince, so I blow a kiss to each child to wake them.  As they jump up to run away, I announce, “You’re on a white horse!  Galloping, galloping, gallop away!” I gallop with them the first few times to show how it’s done, and the older ones quickly catch on.

Over the next several weeks, the children and I play Snow White on more days than not.  The first few days we try new things, but by the end of the week we’ve settled into a more settled form, and I can remember the songs and rhymes that I’ve added.  Not long after that, the children can play it without me.  The bigger children don’t mind the littler ones being involved, because they’ve been involved from the beginning.  The older children begin to branch out and create their own play around it.  I’m able to sit back in my Adirondack chair and drink my iced tea again, watching the children play happily.

Over the years the children and I have invented many of these spontaneous plays together.  One winter I had a little girl who watched the movie of “The Grinch” at home and wanted to play it; so we invented our own “Grinch” story that involved hanging our stockings to “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” then the children sleeping while I took the stockings away, then the children all finding toys to give to one another and ending with a fun romp around the play room in celebration as we sang together.  One summer we played “The Three Little Pigs” many times, where the children chose “houses” in the play yard and ran joyfully together from house to house as I huffed and puffed.  Others were not based on any known story at all, but emerged as I put on my story time voice and narrated what I saw and the children, in turn, responded to what I said.  The games all evolved over time and I would establish them and then step back to let the children take over.

I don’t do spontaneous theater every day, or even every month.  I just pull it out as needed, when the children’s play keeps going sour; when children need help remembering to be inclusive; or when the little ones want to play with the older ones but don’t quite know how.  But best of all is the fact that I enjoy it, and the children do to.

Faith Collins is founder/director of Joyful Toddlers! ( and Student Services Director of the LifeWays Training in Boulder.