If there’s one thing better than environmentalist kids, it’s environmentalist kids’ theater, which happened last weekend (but took some months of planning) at the Bushwick Starr for the third annual Big Green Theater. The program, in partnership with the (adult) ecology-inspired theater collective Superhero Clubhouse, gathers ten 5th-graders from nearby PS 123 to learn about an environmental issue from educators and researchers from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and subsequently make a play incorporating their newfound knowledge.
I think the idea is brilliant. Not only is the theater fostering the kids’ creative growth – as playwrights, no less! – but also building their environmental sensibilities. Here these ten-year-olds were making simple plots about giving aliens their hydroponic harvest, while I had only recently heard about hydroponic farming. They also (kind of) explained the similarities between tropical hurricanes and nor’easters in a hilarious yet semi-serious way: the storms were brothers that joined forces to destroy New York City’s transportation systems, which would not only get New Yorkers to take the healthy and sustainable mode of walking as transportation, but also serve as a GHG-induced warning sign for the rest of the world. The hydroponic crop-giving plot was similarly cautionary: in the little vignette, the aliens had been stealing crops and cow from farmers due to the fact that they had overexploited their home planet’s resources, and could not grow any more of their own foods.
That was one of the highlights of the play that really got me. If these kids from Bushwick could understand the connection between anthropogenic climate change and worsening natural hazards, or the dangers of monocropping and overexploitation, Generation Z might just be all right. Even if they only understand it on a visceral, “this is bad because adults say it’s bad” level. Yes, there were flaws in the play’s dialogue and plot, which were a tad spastic and at times incoherent. But the program is a place for 5th graders to create, not necessarily to emulate any master playwrights.
And it’s a place for them to really learn, and to care about important environmental issues through creation. The program’s model is wonderful, in my mind; for some (read: me) it’s difficult to fully and viscerally understand an issue unless it is realized in some tangible way, either by witnessing it firsthand, or through art. This is especially true with children; to them (at least from what I remember from being a kid) school is just a thing that they have to do, and not necessarily a place of learning about the real world. But when they’re encouraged – and enabled – to create something that they can see come to fruition, they seem to care more. And even if they don’t, the environmental education that they did receive through the program will (hopefully) stick, just because they were able to create something from it. That’s the power of art, and the beauty of art education.
Not only has the Big Green Theater put the method of artistic learning into the hands of a bunch of fifth graders, they’ve taken steps to educate, involve, and foster the growth of these kids in a really amazing way. It’s unprecedented, as far as I can tell, and I can’t wait to see where the kids go, and what’s next for the program!
Photographs by Sue KesslerEdits, May 9 2013: Inserted official photographs by Sue Kessler, mentioned the Superhero Clubhouse and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.