Going to the theatre is good for children's development, research shows

Far more than just a fun treat, seeing live shows offers a host of benefits for kids and parents, as Lisa Salmon finds out

Experts say live theatre shows can help enhance children's understanding of emotions
Experts say live theatre shows can help enhance children's understanding of emotions

HAVE you ever taken your child to the theatre? With panto season just finished – and what an amazing variety of shows there was to choose from in Belfast alone this year (Oh yes, there was...) – there will be little doubt among the thousands of parents who brought their kids to one of these an annual fun-fests that it can be a magical and memorable experience.

However, according to experts, taking youngsters to watch a live performance could also provide a host of developmental benefits, including improved emotional intelligence and opportunities to discuss difficult subjects.

Add to that the laughter – and bonding experience – that both kids and parents can get out of attending a live show, whether that's a panto, play or a musical, and it's clear that a trip to the theatre is a great family outing – particularly if you can grab a few cut-price tickets too.

However, new research shows that nearly a third (30 per cent) of parents say their child has never been to the theatre. Meanwhile, of the 70 per cent of parents whose youngsters have seen live performances, 90 per cent say their children get excited about going, and nearly one in five (19 per cent) say they talk about the performance for months after seeing it (for years, in fact, in some cases).

The research by Encore Tickets (, also found that 46 per cent of parents enjoy going to the theatre with their child, because they believe it's good for their development, and two-thirds say they enjoy it because it's a family experience they can share together that brings happy memories.

Experts are in full agreement. Going to see live theatre shows can help aid children's understanding of emotions, according to Birkbeck, University of London developmental psychologist, Dr Natasha Kirkham.

Kirkham, a researcher at Birkbeck's Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, also says there's clear evidence that attending theatre performances can help enhance social bonds, and play a useful role in helping children develop emotional intelligence. Here's a closer look at how going to the theatre can be great for kids...

1. It helps family bonding and strengthens relationships

Research by University College London shows those who attend the theatre together will synchronise their heart rates, which is shown to promote affiliation (close connection) and social bonding. Kirkham explains: "When people behave similarly, they perceive each other as more alike, which in turn creates a sense of connection or attachment. Going to the theatre with family and friends can therefore offer the potential of promoting relationships, in addition to the already known benefits of spending time as a family."

This has clear implications for child development, she adds, given that childhood is a vital time for forming social groups and bonding. She points out that developmental psychologists have known for years that play-acting is a fundamental part of development, allowing children to engage in different personalities, work their way through complex social relationships and navigate emotional issues. "It's exciting to consider that attending the theatre could offer some of the same benefits," says Kirkham.

2 . It helps improve emotional intelligence

The narrative of performances can bring to life the most dramatic yet distressing issues that people experience. Topics such as love and friendship, bullying, violence and experiencing the death of a loved one can all feature in theatre productions, all of which play out the emotions involved and often the consequences. And by witnessing these sorts of topics, but in a fun and safe environment like the theatre, children can access unfamiliar emotions, even more effectively than when reading stories.

A study by the University of Arkansas found that when primary and secondary school pupils saw Hamlet or A Christmas Carol, they had enhanced knowledge of the plot and vocabulary in the plays, greater tolerance, and improved ability to read the emotions of others. The researchers, led by Jay Greene, a professor of education reform, concluded: "Seeing plays is an effective way to teach academic content; increases student tolerance by providing exposure to a broader, more diverse world; and improves the ability of students to recognise what other people are thinking or feeling. These are significant benefits."

3. It opens up conversations around difficult yet important subjects

The Encore Tickets research demonstrated that seeing a theatre performance can have a lasting impression, as children often spoke about what they saw for months, sometimes even years, afterwards. Kirkham says this shows the impact a story performance can have on a child, and how – by exposing them to things – theatre can help enable open discussions about subjects that can be tricky to bring up.

Kirkham says that after the children, parents and teachers had been to see a play that discussed bullying and violence, she conducted workshops and group interviews on these topics at primary schools in 10 inner-city areas with high violent crime rates.

"By attending a play that discussed these pertinent issues, the children, their parents and teachers were able to engage in dialogue about the gap between what the children were experiencing and what the adults were seeing," says Kirkham. "Taken together, this suggests an evident benefit of theatre attendance for children, across a range of developmental areas. Theatre can improve social bonding, allow for emotions to be explored in a safe space, and kick-start conversations about important issues."