Not even a year ago, Roberta Cullen opened the doors of Alexandria Children’s Theatre. Cullen, who has been teaching children’s acting and movement classes in Alexandria for almost 15 years, focuses her programs on children’s creativity, encouraging them to fully express themselves freely and comfortably.
During the days of social distancing and staying at home, a little creativity can go a long way—especially for children who are missing school and their extracurricular activities. We spoke with Cullen to get her tips on how to spark your child’s imagination during this time. See highlights from our conversation below.
What is your biggest tip for parents working from home and taking care of their children all at the same time?
My heart goes out to parents and children at this very difficult time. Something that may help keep the peace at home is having short, 15- to 20-minute mini breaks to really play with children and give them undivided attention, but with a timer set so that when the timer or buzzer rings, children know that parents have to go back to their work tasks while the kids resume schoolwork or playing with a sibling. Giving children a specific place that’s just theirs at home—like allowing them to build a fort out of blankets indoors and leaving it up— as well as coming together for regular meals, and keeping a consistent bedtime will also be helpful.
Which do you prefer: structured playtime or free play?
I think a combination of structured playtime and free-choice activities would probably help most children at this time.
What’s a great self-play game, toy or acting method that parents could use to “distract” their child when they need to get some work done?
Ages 3 and up can be encouraged to use puppets to make up a story and then act it out for families. Don’t have any puppets at home? This is a fabulous video for making puppets out of found objects around the house is by Jim Henson of The Muppets. It runs about 15 minutes. After watching it, then kids can be off of screens!
Four to 5-year-olds can look at a favorite picture book, then make a plan for how they would act out the story for their families using movement and some spoken words. Interested students could look at the book, then take paper and make “notes” or drawings about their plan to act it out, then do a “show” for their families.
Children 6 years old to 8 years old can basically do the same activity, but make it more in-depth, adding some costume pieces from their dress-ups, maybe painting some pieces of paper to be the scenery. And, those 8 and up can write their own scripts to be performed by family members.
Cabin fever is ramping up for all ages. How can parents help to combat those feelings with their kids to “get the jitters out?”
I think moving to music is a great idea! It also develops the body-mind connection for all ages. At Alexandria Children’s Theatre we rarely use games that involve one person winning, so I’d try playing musical chairs just for fun, or take a 10-minute dance break several times a day. Remember to change up the style of music: Do a pretend ballet, try tap or Irish dancing, even if your child has never taken a dance class before. If they do usually take dance classes, let them be the teacher and teach everyone in the family!
Families can also play this game based on Ghosts in the Graveyard, but we call it Statues in the Garden: One person is the Nightwatchman (or watch person) who turns away from the others and counts to 10 as the statues move into a position. The game begins when the watchman starts to walk around the room, trying to catch the statues moving. Blinking, breathing and scratching are all allowed in this game. Statues need to try and use big movements (including walking around) without being caught or seen by the watchman. Statues take a seat when they’re caught moving. You can set a timer for five minutes, or even one minute if you’d like, and then switch places with a new watchman. This game is best with a class full of children, but a family can make it work too.
What is your favorite toy or activity that is also educational for kids?
Sculptor and Clay is an activity that incorporates creative thinking, physical control, patience and teamwork. One person is the sculptor, they come up with a feeling, animal, historical character etc., and they gently move the clay’s body into that position. The clay has to move their body as guided or asked to do so and hold that position, without changing it or telling the sculptor what to do. The sculptor then explains their creation at their “art show.” Then participants switch parts and use another topic for their creation. This can continue until participants are ready to stop.
What can parents do at home to help their children recreate things they would be doing in theater or acting classes to keep their skills up?
Self-expression is integral to acting, but also helpful for life, so whatever parents can do to help their child continue to express their feelings through movement, using facial expressions and their voices, would be wonderful! Charades and pantomime for younger students (not moving, like a mime per se) but using their bodies to create different places like the jungle, the beach, a desert would be fun. Older students can try Readers Theatre using scripts online, projecting their voices as they read. I’m happy to offer specific ideas if parents email me.
Do you have any other tips for parents right now during this unprecedented time?
Try to find some humor every day. This is easier said than done, I know, but will help everyone in the house. Jokes are available online to download. Maybe print out a joke for each person to share at dinner.
Spend some time outside as a family, listening for sounds, looking at things carefully without a phone in hand.
Keep breathing. If someone is losing their temper or agitated, do the “take five” calming/mindfulness exercise: Hold up your hand, and take your other hand to slowly trace up towards the pinkie finger as you inhale, then exhale as you drop your finger down toward the ring finger’s base, inhale up the ring finger, exhale down the other side and so on toward the thumb, taking five deep breaths by the end of outlining your hand.
Are you a mother yourself?
I was blessed with two lovely, creative daughters. The oldest is 23 and back home from her life in NYC during the virus. The youngest is 21 and a rising fourth-year at UVA.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Children love to share their ideas and creativity, whether those ideas are spoken or created with art supplies. Taking a few moments to give undivided attention to them can provide a mental break for parents. Try to enjoy and encourage their creative thinking without judging. If you don’t feel creative, most children’s theatre programs are offering affordable online classes while we wait to hear what our summer camps will look like. Please consider letting your child participate in a class; many offer discounted fees. Stay safe!
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