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Title: The dramatic instinct in children

Creator: American Institute of Child Life

Release date: May 20, 2023 [eBook #70812]

Language: English

Original publication: United States: The Abingdon Press, 1914

Credits: This file was produced from images generously made available by the HathiTrust Digital Library.





Prepared originally by

of the




Copyright 1914, by


The development of the dramatic instinct in children is the special responsibility of parents. The public school and church school programs are gradually including dramatics and the teachers in many of these schools can go far in sharing this responsibility. But it is in the home where room and time, equipment and motive, suggestions and cooperating friends are found. Parental skill is revealed in helping a child to try on a new character or virtue as well as a new blouse or pair of shoes. Social and moral imagination in the child can be realized under the direct guidance of father or mother. Voyages are taken, investigations made, treasure islands discovered, animals subdued, robbers put to flight, the plans of sly Indians frustrated, and fierce battles waged by the child whose parent-teacher is versatile and imaginative. The dull, uninteresting parent, whose chief virtue is that of routine, long-faced fidelity, narrows his children’s world and correspondingly limits the range of their moral development.

What faith is to the adult the dramatic instinct is to the child: it is the substance, the substantial realization of things hoped for. It is the power to make things happen. It is the victory that overcomes the prosaic, saw-dust affairs of life.

If this pamphlet, carefully studied, helps parents to see and properly awaken the sleeping dramatic powers of their children and give them a new motive in guiding its various expressions, the purpose of the writers will have been realized.

Norman E. Richardson.



[1] The material included in this pamphlet, together with other practical studies of the subject of play, is included in “A Manual of Play,” by Forbush, and published by Jacobs and Company.

“And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes through the hills,
“And sometimes sent my ships in fleets,
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out
And planted cities all about.”
Robert Louis Stevenson.

I. The Nature of the Dramatic Instinct—1. Its Expression in Early Childhood. 2. Its Expression in Middle Childhood. 3. Its Expression in Later Childhood.

II. Educational Value—1. The Moral Value of this Instinct. 2. Its Inspirational Value.

III. SummaryReferences.

I. The Nature of the Dramatic Instinct

THE dramatic instinct finds expression in the impulse to make playful use of the imagination. It is based on certain fundamental instincts of childhood—imitation, construction, and motor activity. Its expression has been called by Gesell “a vital spark of life dropped into the lap of formalism and routine.”

This impulse is found among the earliest and lowest races. In the individual it is felt from early childhood throughout life. If neglected, it may fade away in maturity until it is hardly noticed; but, if properly developed, it is one of the greatest sources of human joy and strength.

Imagination is said to be of two kinds—passive6 and active. Passive imagination is that which dominates all other mental factors, making them subordinate. Active imagination is that of which the individual himself takes charge. An illustration of passive imagination is daydreaming. Play and dramatics are examples of active imagination. Both have their place in a man’s life. Passive imagination enables the individual to transfigure commonplace circumstances or surroundings in the glamour of beauty and to forecast ideal situations yet to be. It thus fills the present with sunshine and the future with hope. Active imagination begins where passive imagination leaves off, and comes forth to play and work with actual materials or circumstances in an imaginative fashion, and sets about making the fanciful future actual.

With young persons under fourteen active imagination is uppermost. Says Stevenson: “We grown people can tell ourselves a story, give and take strokes until the bucklers ring, ride far and fast, marry, fall and die, all the while sitting quietly by the fire or lying prone in bed. This is exactly what a child cannot do, or does not do, at least, when he can find anything else. He works all with lay figures and such properties. When his story comes to the fighting, he must rise, get something by way of a sword and have a set-to with a piece of furniture, until he is out of breath. When he comes to ride with the king’s pardon, he must bestride a chair, which he will so hurry and belabor and on which he will so furiously demean himself that the messenger will arrive, if not bloody with spurring, at least fiery red with haste.”

W. W. Newell, in Games and Songs of American Children, says: “Observe a little girl who has attended her mother for an airing in some city park. The older person, quietly seated beside the footpath, is half absorbed in reverie; takes little notice of passers-by, or of neighboring sights or sounds, further than to cast an occasional glance, which may inform her of the child’s security. The other,7 left to her own devices, wanders contented within the limited scope, incessantly prattling to herself; now climbing an adjoining rock, now flitting like a bird from one side of the pathway to the other. Listen to her monologue, flowing as incessantly and musically as the bubbling of a spring; if you can catch enough to follow her thought, you will find a perpetual romance unfolding itself in her mind. Imaginary persons accompany her footsteps; the properties of a childish theatre exist in her fancy; she sustains a conversation in three or four characters.”

The expression of the dramatic instinct may be observed on every hand, not only among children, but grown-ups as well. It animates the group conversing on the street corner, arousing the observer to imagine what the topic of conversation may be. It also enlivens the drawing-room, thus helping to make the social function a success. His observation of it may well have stirred the poet to say, “The world’s a stage, and we are players all.” And as our parts on the world stage change with the changing years, so the expression of this instinct is different in each of the three periods of childhood.

Its Expression in Early Childhood

During very early childhood little folks express the dramatic instinct entirely by imitation. They imitate people, birds, animals, noises; they try to enter into every experience which is within their reach by gesture, speech, or repeated action. As Joseph Lee tells us, “The mind first learns things by getting inside them, by being what it studies.” The child’s imagination is not capable of creating new situations, it simply enables him to reproduce the actions of other people in familiar ones. He mirrors the world as he understands it. These expressions are entirely individualistic and usually unconscious.

8 This endeavor to mirror and imitate the life about him is a most important means by which the child educates himself. Evidently, the more varied the life which he sees, the more variety will enter into his play, and the broader will be the child’s intelligence.

From three years to about six, the dramatic impulse expresses itself largely in the form of make-believe. The individual creates a play-self living in a play-world. He begins now and continues with increasing power to imitate the idea rather than the thing. The baby could imitate the gestures and tones of his father. A child in this period plays that he is a father. When playing with dolls or soldiers, the child of this era transforms not only the dolls or soldiers and the nursery into an imaginary world full of the people which the dolls or soldiers represent, but he transforms himself into the parent of the dolls or the captain of the soldiers.

The following list of the plays of the larger boys of a California kindergarten during their recreation period illustrates how the play-world enlarges by the time the child has reached his fourth or fifth year: October 24th, Policeman; 25th, Policeman and Hunters; 26th, Wild Horses, Hunters, and Salvation Army; 30th, Butcher and House; November 1st, Butcher, Jail; 2d, Hunting, Cars, Circus; 3d, Butcher, Band, Procession; 6th, Band, Ladder, Steamer and Circus; 7th, Ladder, played with as Steam-engine, and Circus-train; 8th, Ladder, played with as Pipe-organ, and then Wood-saw; 10th, Ladder, as a Steamer; 13th, Dragon; 14th, Wild Pig; 15th, Wild Hog; 16th, Wild Hog, Train, Indians; 17th, Wild Hog, Indians; 20th, Merry-go-round; 21st, Cars; 22d, Circus and Menagerie; 23d, Policeman; 24th, Cars; 28th, Horse; December 5th, Electric Light Men, Noah’s Ark; 6th, Electric Light Men, Circus; 7th, Wild Horse, Bear, Robbers and Policeman, Electric Launch, Steamer and Boats, Indians; 8th, Indians; 11th, Santa9 Claus, Wild Horse, Store, Street-watering Carts; 12th, Teams of Horses, Telephone.

This list of things that children can do without adult guidance may be helpful to some mother who is called upon to kindle the imagination of her young child by suggestions.

“Making believe,” says Stevenson, “is the gist of his whole life, and he cannot so much as take a walk except in character. I could not learn my alphabet without some suitable mise-en-scène, and had to act a business man in an office before I could sit down to my book.” And he gives this thoroughly boyish illustration from his own childhood: “When my cousin and I took our porridge of a morning, we had a device to enliven the course of the meal. He ate his with sugar, and explained it to be a country continually buried under snow. I took mine with milk, and explained it to be a country suffering gradual inundation. You can imagine us exchanging bulletins; how here an island was still unsubmerged, here a valley not yet covered with snow; what inventions were made; how his population lived in cabins on perches and traveled on stilts, and how mine was always in boats; how the interest grew furious, as the last corner of safe ground was cut off on all sides and grew smaller every moment; and how, in fine, the food was of altogether secondary importance, and might even have been nauseous, so long as we seasoned it with these dreams.”

In another place he says: “We need pickles nowadays to make Wednesday’s cold mutton please our Friday appetite; but I can remember the time when to call it red venison, and tell myself a hunter’s story, would have made it more palatable than the best of sauces. To a grown person cold mutton is cold mutton all the world over; not all the mythology ever invented by man will make it better or worse to him; the broad fact, the clamant world, of the mutton carries away before it such seductive figments. But for the child it still is possible to10 weave an enchantment from eatables; and, if he has but read of a dish in a storybook, it will be heavenly manna to him for a week.”

The thing that is behind this making-believe seems to be a certain hunger to realize life to its fullest. Sully gives this winsome anecdote to illustrate the realizing power of play: “One day two sisters said to one another, ‘Let us play being sisters.’ This might well sound insane enough to hasty ears; but is it not really eloquent? To me it suggests that the girls felt they were not realizing their sisterhood, enjoying all the possible sweets of it as they wanted to—perhaps there had been a quarrel and a supervening childish coldness. And they felt too that the way to get this more vivid sense of what they were, or ought to be, one to the other, was by playing the part, by acting a scene in which they would come close to one another in warm, sympathetic fellowship.”

This kind of play is individualistic at the beginning and gradually becomes social. By and by the little child wishes for comradeship. If he has no human companions, he usually engages in the pathetic make-believe of inventing an imaginary playmate, with whom he often lives continuously. This sort of expression is as ancient as it is universal. The toys with which children have rebuilt an ideal world have been discovered in the ruins of every buried city.

Children show this faculty of imagining themselves other persons in other circumstances not only in play, but in story-telling. It seems to be true that a child imagines himself the hero of every story that he hears or reads, and every normal child acts out afterward most of the stories he hears or the drama he witnesses. “Something happens as we desire to have it happen to ourselves,” says Stevenson; “some situation, that we have long dallied with in fancy, is realized in the story with enticing and appropriate details. Then we forget the characters; then we push the hero aside; then11 we plunge into the tale in our own person and bathe in fresh experiences; and then, and then only, do we say we have been reading a romance.” Many children go even further and perform continuations of such dramas of their own invention, or play for an entire winter successive chapters of a favorite story.

Another way of creating a world of fancy is by playing grown-up. This is, of course, a reproduction, as far as the child’s powers permit, of literal adult activities, with, however, somewhat more of the imaginative element. Dr. G. Stanley Hall calls attention to the fact that, while little children will imitate animals, there soon comes a time when they cease to do so and imitate only human beings: during childhood those who perform the more active occupations; during adolescent those who express what are to them the ideals of character.

The little child rolls up a piece of paper, and imitates the action of his father when smoking a cigarette. But the growing boy smokes a real cigarette, so that he may feel himself a man. This expression of imagination is sometimes innocent and pleasant; but, where it is a copying of adult follies, an endeavor to enter adult experiences too soon, it gives us a race of blasé young-old persons who have no laid-up treasures.

Its Expression in Middle Childhood

During middle childhood, from six to nine, the interest in dramatic play continues to be strong. But the comparative meagerness of the imagination during this period makes the playmate more of a necessity than in preceding years. In early childhood the tendency to create playmates is so strong that the child enjoys playing alone. During the self-assertive years between six and nine, however, the child plays, more or less quarrelsomely, with others, taking them in as characters of his mimic world and enriching his own play by their conjunct12 imaginativeness. This explains why the leader of the gang is usually the most resourceful individual in the group, since he is the one who is depended upon to successfully conduct their imaginative play.

The welcome occasionally extended to adult leadership in youthful gangs has this same explanation: the adult keeps thinking of something new to do when the resourcefulness of his juniors runs dry.

But adult supervision should not prevent the child from using his constructive instinct which is fast developing during this period. It can aid the expression of the dramatic impulse in the creation of costumes, properties, etc., for the representations of characters and scenes from myths and stories. The reading should now be made wide enough to include many models for the child’s dramatic play. A certain amount of dependence upon himself for the construction of his playthings assists in calling forth ingenuity. Some years ago, in Chicago, an Italian boy is said to have invented the “pushmobile” or “autoped,” as it is variously called, which, though repressed then by the city authorities, is to-day such a delight to our boys and girls. This invention has been described as follows:

“He took a board, about four feet long, and fastened half a roller skate to each end. To one end of the upper side he fastened a soap box. Then steadying himself by means of the box and putting one foot on the board and propelling himself with the other he went zip! The speed attained was almost incredible. The boy next door caught sight of him in his flight and looked about for a board, a roller skate and a soap box. Then the boy across the street caught the idea, and before many days there were 10,000 pushmobiles in the city of Chicago. The advantage of the pushmobile was (we are obliged to use the past tense for it has been suppressed) that it was invented, manufactured, and perfected by the boys themselves. It was distinctly the creation of the city boy, the offspring of cement walks and asphalt pavements. It could not have13 come into being in the country. It represented ingenuity, resourcefulness, industry, and progress.”

The writer might have added, it represented in most distinct form the dramatic instinct. One reason why playground leaders have begun to add theatricals to the play-shelters connected with the Chicago playgrounds is because they believe that the origination called forth by story-playing will overcome the dead inertia of the oversupervised and overdictated playgrounds.

It is through environment and the adequate supply of implements, rather than direction, that the dramatic impulse of these years can best be developed. There is “imitation of nearly every occupation or custom known to children,” says Johnson in Education by Plays and Games. He lists “such plays as firemen, expressmen, conductors, soldiers, Indians, cowboys, store, school, house, doll play of infinite variety, traveling, calling, party,” as typical of middle childhood. They suggest to us an important use of the dramatic impulse during the period when the child is becoming acquainted with the world outside his home.

Its Expression in Later Childhood

There comes a time in the life of most children, at about the tenth year, when they take pleasure in expressing dramatic ideas to an audience. The earliest expression of this instinct in the two previous eras was individualistic; this is social. The other two were quite unconscious; this is self-conscious from the beginning. Such expression of the dramatic instinct would seem to have a close relation to and be a preparation for the theatrical profession. On the contrary, however, the desire for dramatic expression belongs to children who have the very slightest dramatic ability. Its organized expression, instead of encouraging young people to become professional actors, usually quite satisfies that fever and is somewhat of an antidote for it.

14 The plays, therefore, include attempts at circus-playing, minstrel shows, wild West shows, etc. The constructive instinct is now so well developed that rather elaborate “properties” can be made to help stage these productions. The intense physical activity of this “Big-Injun” age makes such imitative plays as Indian, hunter, trapper, etc., especially appealing. Though the main ideas for these plays and for those given before an audience have been gained from observation and reading, there is much originality and creativeness exhibited if the dramatic instinct has been allowed to develop in previous years.

In later childhood and youth young people begin to organize themselves into clubs and societies, which represent the people and customs of another age or the social organizations of adults. This instinct is seen even among grown people in the secret lodges, where men, who have apparently outgrown the play spirit, find a genuine satisfaction in being known as “knights,” engaging in secret rites reproductive of magic and mystery, and banding themselves into fraternities which bring down the names, traditions and ideals of mediæval guilds and chivalric orders.

While this third era is later than the second, it does not supersede it, but lives alongside of it. The desire to appear before an audience persists usually only as there are easy opportunities for doing so, but the youth of unspoiled fancy continues all his life long to create imaginary people and to live in a world of ideals. It is thus that he is able to keep the spirit of youth by which he can sympathize with those of the younger generation, and continue to hope and have faith even when the world appears to be too much for him.

The matter of actual dramatic impersonation is but a small and temporary part of the range of the dramatic instinct. This paper touches upon it, but does not emphasize it. The dramatic instinct is too large, too useful, too inspiring to be confined to occasional forensic or theatrical performances.


II. The Educational Value of This Instinct

Two thirds of all play is dramatic play. Those who believe in the educational value of play must, therefore, not neglect this phase of it.

The child who engages in dramatic play reproduces and enacts, and so realizes the ideas around him. He so focuses imagination that what would otherwise be vague pictures are made real by his own activity.

“Dramatic work,” says Gesell, “organizes the child’s thinking. The simple and imperfect images of childhood are vivified and crystallized by being transformed into the movements which express them, and a child emerges from dramatic representation fortified in his mental imagery.” A child who tries to “act a horse,” as Mrs. Gruenberg tells us, will be much more apt to notice all the different activities and habits of the horse than a child who observes passively.

“The child,” says Dr. Gesell, “does not smile when he is glad, but fairly dances with joy. He does not shed a few tears when he is unhappy, but kicks and shakes with his grief. The opportunity to make use of his whole body in the expression of his feeling, which he is compelled to do in dramatic interpretation, will serve to equalize and conserve his moral strength. Emotional expression, although dependent upon instinct, must not be left to chance. Instinct and emotion are as capable of organization as motor and mental processes.”

One writer (Anne Throop Craig) suggests the use of the dramatic impulse instead of the usual school gymnastics as a means of relaxation, since it involves the use of the child’s whole body. “Let them act a little play,” she says. “Let them make it up on the spur of the moment.”

What we remember best is that which we learned dramatically. “The fact acted out is the fact remembered,” says Mrs. Herts. What we remember out of books is that which we have in some fashion16 ourselves reproduced. Our memories of the Bible even are chiefly those related to some dramatic event, such as the ritual of the church, a revival or some dramatic method which was used incidentally or purposefully in our Bible study. Letting the children act out such stories as those of Moses, Joseph and Samuel, as is being done in many of our church schools to-day, not only arouses interest but helps to fix the knowledge of the Bible’s wonderful hero stories firmly in their minds.

“That which the child understands,” says Gesell, “must bear an intimate and personal relation. Just as he must take into his hands the concrete thing he studies, and by physical contact understand it, so, to understand thought, emotion, character, he must assimilate them, lose himself in them, and become for the time being that thing which he interprets. Through such interpretation the child touches heights and depths which otherwise might never enter into his experience. Life becomes larger as he learns to lay aside his own limitations and put himself in the other man’s place. He need not wait to enlist in the army to become a soldier, nor carry a real gun to acquire a martial step. He need not do wrong himself in order to know the remorse of wrongdoing.”

A child who merely reads about a foreign people gathers only a dull catalog of external facts, which he soon forgets; but the child who puts on a foreign costume and endeavors to imitate the actions of its owner begins to get from his experiences the feeling which the other has. “Recently I went into a practice school connected with the University of Chicago,” writes President Faunce, “where I saw the children gathered round a teacher who was reading to them the poem of ‘Hiawatha,’ and their eyes were wide with wonder. Then they went over into the Field Columbian Museum and saw the materials of Indian life, the tents and the wampum, the feathers and the moccasins, and all the utensils of the Indian household. Then they returned and17 modeled in clay an Indian village, with Hiawatha at one end of it, and all over it the marks of the creative imagination.”

In contrast, Dr. Faunce says: “I too learned ‘Hiawatha,’ side by side with Mr. Colburn’s ingenuities. I could spell the name of every tree in Hiawatha’s forest, but would not have known one of them if I had seen it. I could pronounce the name of every beast on the American continent or in Noah’s ark, but knew nothing about any one of them.”

Says O’Shea: “Every personality he assumes stretches his own in one direction or another, enriches it perhaps, or at least broadens it. Through personation one gets the point of view of others; he discovers how it feels in a broad sense to do as they do, and is put in a way to sympathize with them. Again, when the child creates an environment, and then reacts upon it, he is really pre-adjusting himself to that environment.”

The child who engages in dramatic expression not only visualizes more clearly, but more practically. “A child with imagination,” as Mrs. Gruenberg says, “can picture to himself what he is expected to do, and easily translates his instructions into action. To the unimaginative child the directions given will be so many words, and he cannot carry out his instructions so effectively.” This resourcefulness is important. It is the unimaginative child who is always wailing, “What shall I do now?” The child who plays dramatically can be whatever he likes, and have whatever he likes, and always has something to do. And in later life it stands to reason that it will be the men and women who have habitually seen with their imaginations, who have visualized unexpected situations, who will display “faculty” and effectiveness.

This is real education.

The dramatic instinct brings out a number of traits of very great value. It develops initiative and ingenuity and resourcefulness. It helps make18 clear the difference between the imaginary and the real. It helps one to acquire unconsciousness of self, grace of demeanor and the correct use of the voice. It develops the power of action in groups and of ready and unselfish cooperation. It relates itself to English, elocution, drawing, and shop work, and is as important in its inspiring effect upon craftsmanship, in the making of costumes, scenery, and stage effects, as upon the acting itself. The portrayal of scenes from polite life helps politeness, and to imitate a courteous character tends toward the habit of courtesy. “A book on manners and customs will be little used until the child needs the information which it contains to portray some character.”

An interest in literature may first be aroused through the stimulation of the dramatic instinct. Robert Browning, in his poem “Development,” tells how his father, by acting out with him the story of the Iliad, and then suggesting that he might himself find out more about it through reading such and such a book in the library, aroused in him the intense love of the classics which was his through life.

It has also an important part in helping to forecast a child’s future. “I fancy an individual standing hesitant at the center of a great circle, the circle of his possibilities,” says Mrs Howard Braucher. “One small amount of that circle, a part of his potential life, he actually lives—the dramatic instinct is the key which admits him to at least a glimpse of what the rest might have been.” Of what the rest may be, she might have said, because the full expression of the dramatic instinct has often inspired a child with courage to enter the entire circle of his possibilities.

Like all human instincts, the dramatic instinct may be misused. It must not be confused with dramatic talent, which is a special gift bestowed upon only a few. The dramatic impulse in children, as Joseph Lee says, is “not the impulse toward19 dramatics in the grown-up sense—toward representing to other people what is passing in the actor’s mind. It is, rather, the converse of this, being the method whereby children make clear to themselves what they suppose to be in the minds of other people and of other things, or of what is dimly passing in their own.”

The educational value, therefore, of the instinct, lies not in producing finished dramatic products, but in cultivating the child’s imagination through expression.

The Moral Value of This Instinct

The moral values are even greater than the educational. The dramatic instinct is, in the main, a wholesome outlet to a child’s energies. “Good imagination,” says Kirtley, “is good hygiene.” The child ceases to be an obstreperous nuisance who has some imaginative task to perform. Through taking his part, perhaps a minor one, in dramatic play, he learns to cooperate unselfishly with others. Acting itself develops a sense of humor which tends toward a sympathetic philosophy of life.

Dramatic play tends to make the sympathetic attitude continuous. The adult whom you love because she is so sympathetic is sympathetic because she has imagination, because she can put herself imaginatively in your place. The only child or the child brought up by a private tutor lacks sympathy because he has had so few opportunities to put himself in the place of anybody else.

But the great moral value of the dramatic instinct is that it gives a child the opportunity to understand moral issues by having imitative experiences of them.

“In life,” says Mrs. Herts, “youth could hardly discern the miser, spendthrift, liar, hypocrite, egoist, prodigal, swindler, gambler, patriot, martyr, and all the rest. Each quality is disguised and mixed with others. But the drama presents a large repertory20 of such simplified, elemental human qualities, admirably adjusted to the educative or apprenticeship stage of life. The primitive traits, of which human nature is made up, can be observed and studied as a mechanic studies a machine, part by part, before it is put together.”

In her play with her doll, the little girl learns self-control. Because to her the doll is as real as her baby brother or sister, she can be made to feel that she, as its mother, must be a good example and not lose her temper. Working together with others, in later childhood, while dramatizing a story or playing a dramatic game, further assists the child to gain control of self with all its conflicting impulses.

By making work pleasurable, the habit of industry may be rooted early in the child’s life through the use of the dramatic impulse. In Education by Plays and Games, G. E. Johnson tells of a father who succeeded in getting his boys to pick up all the stones in a field and pile them in one spot, by placing a large stone in the center and suggesting it as a mark for the boys to pitch stones at.

Mrs. Herts illustrates the character-making power which comes from performing a noble part in a drama by the following experience:

“We counted the months of careful, patient training well spent when it served to bring the soul of our boy of an East Side tenement into points of contact with the soul and spirit of the chivalrous young prince, and from these points of contact to stimulate him into action. What has the playing of the character of Edward done for this boy besides affording him some months of genuine happiness? It has recovered and strengthened his own will power through the stimulus of Edward’s will; the boy had lost and so found himself in the joy and sorrow of the young English prince. The proper direction and control of his dramatic impulse had brought him into such intimate association with young Edward, Prince of21 Wales, that the thrill of Edward’s valor will forever afterward be unconsciously a part of himself, for something struggling in his starved soul has demanded and received expression. In the last act of the drama, when the young prince, in the rags of Tom Canty, the pauper, makes sturdy claim to his righteous throne, it was good to see this youth of the streets raise his hand with natural dignity, and, when Lord Seymour, with selfish motive, would oppose him, cry out, ‘Hold, Lord Seymour, and stand not in the way when God brings right!’”

It is believed the occasional performance of even an unworthy character has a certain purgative moral effect. Referring to the influence of playing the unpleasant part of Minna in “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” Mrs. Herts says: “A number of nice girls who had played Minna formerly had fallen into the error of wearing plumed picture-hats and transparent waists to business. One does not like to tell a nice girl that she cannot secure the respect of good business men while unsuitably dressed for her work. The social worker who, with the best intention, intrudes personal advice because those he desires to help chance to reside on lower East Broadway instead of upper Fifth Avenue merely displays poor taste and is inapt to alter a mistaken point of view in a matter so vital to all young girls as clothes. The use of dramatic instinct to stir the girl’s imagination to the realization that the quiet garments of Mrs. Errol clothe the body of a woman whose qualities of mind and soul the girl desires to emulate, while Minna’s gaudy apparel clothes the body of a woman whom the girl has grown to understand but not to admire, proved with us to be a very legitimate use of the primitive impulse to truly educational ends.”

“In taking a part in which there is evil,” adds Frederica Beard, “it is quite possible that a young actor will see the outcome of a bad deed, as it is not possible for him to see it immediately in life. He may discern the workings of conscience in the22 character he represents, or he may have to bear the consequences of wrongdoing. If neither of these things is depicted in the play, then the character is not one to be played by young people.”

“The development of expression through the right service of the dramatic instinct ... will serve to stimulate discrimination, a quick eye and hand and heart with added taste for the beautiful, while development in responsiveness to the best and noblest people and things of all the ages will create taste and discrimination in the choice of individual surroundings, deeds, actions, and ambitions” (Mrs. Herts).

The Inspirational Value of This Instinct

Mr. Lee says that “the first really important shock that comes to a young man’s religious sentiment in this world is the number of bored-looking people around, doing right.” Perhaps our greatest moral task with young folks is to persuade them that it is not only wise to be good, but happy to be good. If we are going to do this, we must reveal to them larger sources of joy.

“So many of our children to-day,” Mrs. Braucher says, “are somehow missing the childlike fancy, the buoyant self-forgetfulness, which comes from living in a half-real world. Perhaps they are poor rich children with mechanical toys and so many opportunities to see stupendous productions of the old fairy tales behind real footlights that the home plays seem crude. Perhaps they are rich poor children who live so close to the pain and the burden and the specter that the airy forms of fairy life have quite flitted away. Or, perhaps, they are just normal healthy children whose childlike realism, for want of the suggestive touch of fancy, has shut out the dim fairy figures—whoever they are, wherever they are, do you want them to lose this unreal, very real part of their lives? Books and stories will help—will plant the seed—but only the appeal to the dramatic instinct will cause it to blossom as the rose.”

23 Dramatic play prevents the emotional nature from becoming inert, and thus keeps the possibility of joyousness forever alive. It retains the imagination and fancy that are so essential to perpetual youth. It is the only possible door to romance and mystery that will remain open for many. It satisfies the human craving to realize the meaning of life regardless of its environment. It is the best way to have life and to have it more abundantly.

Says Mrs. Herts: “A majority of young people as well as children experience a hunger of the soul to live out impulses denied expression in their personal lives. Eternal Personality restricts and shapes us into the limits of our environment. Youth chafes against such limit. The impulses of humanity stir beyond the reach of mere personality, time, and circumstance. Johnnie wants to be a pirate, Miss Smith a queen, young Harry a martyr. This is nature’s provision against spiritual isolation. This hunger of the soul for experience is as elemental a demand for nourishment as the hunger of the body for food. The dramatic instinct is an expression of this elemental hunger.”

Continuing she says: “It is the common, ordinary, free heritage of every child, unconsciously operative in every human being from the cradle to the grave. It is among the great basic forces whereby God shapes humanity.... It is the force which makes the soldier on the battlefield grasp his country’s flag, and raising it high above his head, cry out, ‘On to victory,’ even though that victory includes the death of his own body. It sustains the monk in his vigils, the statesman in his patriotism, the preacher in his pulpit.”

In short, it is the power by which we make real our ideals.

The strongest moral influence of the dramatic instinct comes in adolescence, when it shows itself in the form of aping the manners and copying the ideals of one’s personal hero. O’Shea gives much attention to this. He calls us to notice the fact24 that “children of all ages normally choose for their companions those of a dynamic nature, who are able ‘to do things.’ Persons of a static tendency, though ‘good’ and ‘respectable,’ are not commonly emulated by the young. In any community it will probably be found that men of action, whatever this may be—men who accomplish things—become dominant in the impersonations of the young.”

Cooley, discussing this particular point, illustrates it in an effective way. Speaking of the child’s love of action, he says that “his father sitting at his desk probably seems an inert and unattractive phenomenon, but the man who can make shavings or dig a deep hole is a hero; and the seemingly perverse admiration which children at a later age show for circus men and for the pirates and desperadoes they read about is to be explained in a similar manner. What they want is evident power. The scholar may possibly be as worthy of admiration as the acrobat or the policeman; but the boy of ten will seldom see the matter in that light.”

Now all this is dramatic. It indicates the strong tendency to copy those who are most easily copied, namely, those whose ideals and actions lend themselves, because of their vigor and theatric picturesqueness, to outward impersonation. The parent is performing the highest moral service to his children who can furnish them heroic dramatic examples, if possible by his own activities and career, or by entering heartily with them into dramatic play of such a character as to create the illusion of adventure, or by exposing them to wholesome persons of an age a little greater than their own who are either spectacular in act or dramatic in play.

III. Summary

During childhood, boys and girls pass through three periods in the evolution of the dramatic instinct. Little children imitate people and animals in real situations, endeavoring to mirror the world as they understand it. Beginning at about the third25 year, they commence to create a play-self living in a play-world, and this power of making illusions, as the expression of the hunger to realize life to its fullest extent, lasts as long as people live.

From six to nine children are eagerly becoming acquainted with the world outside the home. The dramatic impulse is then expressed in the imitation of every occupation and custom known to them. The developing tendency to construct aids the dramatic play.

Parallel with this, perhaps at about the tenth year, comes the period when they begin to take pleasure in impersonating dramatic ideas to an audience. This expression of the instinct tends to fade away after adolescence.

The dramatic instinct is of great educational value. It helps the child to realize his world and organize his thinking. He remembers best what he has learned dramatically. It enlarges his experiences and enables him to put himself, both by knowledge and sympathy, in the other man’s place. It is an important factor in mastering literature and history and in becoming familiar with the spirit of other races. It is extremely useful in developing resourcefulness, and the capacity for meeting novel situations. It carries interest and enthusiasm into all school subjects and helps shape the child’s ideals for the future.

The dramatic instinct has a great moral value. It gives a wholesome outlet to a child’s energies; it develops unselfishness; it creates a sympathetic imagination; and it gives a child the opportunity to understand moral issues by having imitative experiences of them.

The dramatic instinct has great inspirational value. It carries fancy through life, is the only possible door to romance for many, and furnishes through hero-worship, the strongest possible incentives to keep noble ideals.

The final intent of the dramatic instinct is that it should minister to fullness of life.

26 We remember how Pollyanna, by finding something glad in every circumstance, succeeded not only in glorifying, but in actually transforming an existence that promised to be cheerless. This is what the dramatic instinct may do for us. Not only does it conjure up illusions in which it is charming to live, but it is so dynamic that it actually tends to change circumstances and helps reshape the world according to our dreams. The stodgy soul without vision squats in the midst of literal realities, but “the dreamer lives forever.”


[2] Books recommended in this pamphlet may be secured through the publishers of the pamphlet.

The principal sources for this monograph are as follows:

Studies of Childhood. James Sully.

Contains an excellent chapter upon “The Age of Imagination.”

Child’s Play. Robert Louis Stevenson.

A wonderfully incisive little study of the imaginative play of childhood from his “Virginibus Puerisque.”

The Children’s Educational Theatre. Alice Minnie Herts.

Contains an excellent series of chapters upon the dramatic instinct.

The Individual in the Making. E. A. Kirkpatrick.

Gives full recognition to imagination at each stage of the child’s development.

Your Child To-day and To-morrow. Mrs. Zidonie M. Gruenberg.

A good chapter on imagination.

The Normal Child and Primary Education. Arnold L. and Beatrice Chandler Gesell.

Contains an excellent chapter on “Dramatic Expression,” showing how to utilize this instinct with children up to six years of age.

Problems of Dramatic Play. Mrs. Howard S. Braucher.

A pamphlet emphasizing the value of this instinct and giving lists of story-plays and dramas for children.

27 The Spirit of Youth and City Streets. Jane Addams.

A plea for the drama in the development of child life.

Play in Education. Joseph Lee.

An excellent characterization of childhood, with special reference to the dramatic instinct in Chapters XVII to XXI.

Education by Plays and Games. George E. Johnson.

Contains a list of dramatic games characteristic of each period of childhood.

Psychology of Childhood. Norsworthy and Whitley.

Contains many good suggestions upon the development and value of dramatic expression.

The Development of a Dramatic Element in Education. Anne Throop Craig.

A suggestive article in The Pedagogical Seminary for March, 1908.



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Transcriber’s Note:

Punctuation has been standardised.

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remember how Pollyana changed to
remember how Pollyanna