History of Drama in Education Part 2: Peter Slade & Child Drama

This is part two of a series of articles chronicling the history of Drama and Theatre in Education. It is important. It is important to understand where the subject of Drama has come from. What baggage it comes with. How perceptions of the subject have changed over the years. How that baggage and perceptions effect the subject today.

If you missed part one, you can read it here.

Here is a visual representation of the period of history between 1900 and 1960.

Post-War Britain faced an increasing tension between two views of of education. One view focused on the teaching of academic subject-based education and cultural development. The other focused on ideas of creative self-expression. The concept of teaching theatre very much fitted into the first view. Whilst the idea of Drama as a pedagogy fitted into the second. But it was the second view of Drama that became the dominant norm in education by the early 1960’s.

During the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, there was the mood for curriculum development and reform. The child centred approach to education fitted with the culture of the time. Especially with young people. Both the youth in schools and the young people training to become teachers. Indeed, hundreds of new Drama teachers were being taught to teach Drama. All focused on the concept of Child Drama and using Drama as an explorative tool. In 1962 there were only 6 courses in the UK offering training in becoming a Drama Teacher. By 1971 there were over a 100. Such was the demand for new Drama teachers.

Thus, by the late 1960’s where using Drama as a pedagogical tool had become the dominant norm in education. It was under these circumstances that the work of Peter Slade and Brian Way came to the fore. With Peter Slade came a third way definition of Drama. Child Drama.

Slade saw Child Drama as a different art form. Distinct and different from the theatre we know as adults. This definition meant that Drama was not a subject nor a method of teaching, but a state of being. “The art of life” was how Slade described Drama. His theory was that a healthy child will engage in a balance of two forms of play: personal play and projected play.

Personal play is the most like what we recognise as Drama. Here the child takes part in physical plays. Using their whole body and mind involved as they act the scenario out.  Projected play is still Drama but lies within the mind. Here is child is more static. Sitting with the majority of the play takes place completely within the mind.

The connection between this and theatre seems tenuous at best. But Slade insisted that these activities were Drama. He argued that how children behave should seen through a theatrical lens. His claim was to that in order for us to look at the development of a child one must also look at the whole child. This includes the child as an artist, and as a theatrical artist, in particular.

So, when for example a student starts to play fight, Slade would interpret this as having two outcomes. First is the psychological satisfaction that comes from the play fight. The second is the aesthetic potential of the play fight.

Slade believes that within each child, indeed within us all, there is Drama. This is because life is Drama, and that when that we express that Drama it becomes theatre.

The relationship between this ‘Drama within the child’ and theatre is difficult to define. Indeed, for many, it was easier to assume that Slade took an anti-theatre stance. But what Slade was trying to do was to invite teachers to re-examine their perceptions of play, drama and theatre.

Either way, Slade changed the perception of Drama. Not only our assumptions about the value of theatre in education. But the very nature of the Drama lesson itself and the role of the Drama teacher.

Yet, Slade had seen performance work as vital and important for those children in secondary school. He saw traditional theatre as a natural progression from Child Drama. But when asked why is acting on a normal stage bad for young children, he answered.

“Because it destroys Child Drama, and the Children then merely try to copy what adults call theatre. They are not successful in this, and it is not their way of playing. They need space, and don’t need to be embroiled in the complicated technique of an artificial theatre form. It makes them conscious of the audience, spoils their sincerity and teachers them to show off”.

Likewise, education authorities came to see Drama in this way as well. Neither a subject nor a method. As a form of self-expression to enable self-actualisation and realisation in young people.

More schools and teachers were breaking from the view that drama in schools should be about making and learning about theatre.


In 1966 John Hodgeson and Earnest Richards published a book called “Improvisation”. Their focus was very much on a theatrical base. Teaching theatre and acting skills as a way of improving the lives of young people. They were the first to make a proper connection between teaching Drama and the practitioners of Stanislavski. But by 1966, the tables had turned and the views of Hodgeson and Richards were not shared.

By the 1960’s the two definitions of drama had become polarized. But it was not only theories and approaches that created that difference. The Tripartite System created a culture that served to heighten this division.

But this is something which we will explore in my next blog.