Theater for kids!

As a longtime educator, I know first-hand just how important literacy is to early childhood development. 

But when I became a mother, I felt overwhelming anxiety over how to weave these skills into our daughter’s life when she was little. 

When Ella was born, we read to her from day one, of course. But I still felt a responsibility to somehow figure out how to spark her passion for literature and the world around her, all while encouraging her development of confidence, self-expression, curiosity and a sense of wonder. 

I knew I needed to see my world of education inform my parenting, but how?

Our first major family trip was for our daughter’s first birthday. 

We decided we would go on a Disney cruise because we’d heard of their exceptional reputation for providing entertainment for all ages. One of their claims to fame — other than “the Mouse” — was their Broadway-caliber live shows. 

We’d heard they were not to be missed. But how exactly, we wondered, were we going to enjoy a show with a 1-year-old? 

Art meets literature

Feeling brave (and a bit seasick), we made our attempt. We cautiously sat in the back row, as near to the doors as possible, and we devised a detailed exit strategy if, per chance, even the tiniest whimper escaped her. 

Much to our surprise, Ella was utterly captivated for the entire hour-long performance!

Fast forward two years: Spring 2015 will mark the 30th theater performance Ella has attended and, perhaps miraculously, not once have we had to fully abandon a show. 

We’ve become self-proclaimed theater groupies, in fact. 

My husband and I have discovered a reinvigorated enthusiasm for the arts, thanks to the excellent quality of the local productions. 

Even as an adult, I can honestly admit that I frequently enjoy these children’s productions more than the adult theater shows to which I’d been accustomed. 

Plus, who doesn’t want to cast aside our fragmented minds and just embrace our inner child to live in the now, if even for only an hour? As Peter Pan sang, in a recent Children’s Theatre Company production, “I won’t grow up!”

What’s even more exciting is our daughter’s adoration of books has absolutely soared. I can’t help but be overjoyed at the genuine excitement Ella radiates whenever we present her with a new book she knows we’ll be seeing in the theater. 

After the performance, she rushes home to eagerly reread the book over and over again. 

Squeals and wiggles are OK

In Minnesota, our children have access to some of the top children’s theaters in the country. Our family’s two favorites are Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis and Stages Theatre Company in Hopkins. 

And, if you take a look at the two companies’ 2015–16 show lists, you’ll find most of them have ties back to books you can read with kids — if not entire series of books. 

Stages’ nine-play season is 100 percent tied to books, ranging from board books like Bear Snores On to chapter books such as Annie (a novel based on the musical).

The 2015–16 Children’s Theatre Company season boasts strong connections to books, too, with productions such as The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats, The Jungle Book and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Musical.

We’ve also had some wonderful experiences with local community-theater productions: Living in the south-metro area, attending the annual productions put on by the Eagan Summer Community Theatre has become a cherished summer adventure. This past summer, they performed Beauty and the Beast.

Obeying rules, cutting costs

If you’re worried your strong-willed child won’t follow the house rules of the theater, don’t. 

The first thing parents need to remember is that these are children’s theater companies. Their casts, crew and staff understand children may wiggle, blurt something out during a performance or need to be taken out of the theater in the middle of the show. 

Stages Theatre even offers booster seats so each member of the audience, large or small, can easily see and enjoy the show. 

Concerned that it’ll be expensive? Fear not. 

If you know where to look — and you’re willing to plan ahead — you can take advantage of deals and discounts and get tickets for as little as $0 for lap passes and $10 for regular seats. (See the sidebar with this story for a list of options.) 

If you plan to attend numerous shows, check out various theaters’ season-ticket packages to save money throughout the entire season.

And if you have kids with special needs, be sure to check out the dates for sensory-friendly performances, which offer lower sound levels, soft lighting and an environment in which audience members can talk openly and move about to experience the show in their own unique ways. 

If you go

Here are some tips to try!

Stay on schedule: Find a production that fits your family: Avoid attending a performance that conflicts with regular nap or meal times.

Consider the characters: Little ones can sometimes be afraid of masked characters, so choose a show that you know will feature only human characters. 

Keep age in mind: Look at the recommended audience ages for the production. Seasonally, the theaters will have performances geared toward either older or younger children. You probably don’t want to have your 1-year-old reading a book intended for a sixth-grader, right? Well, the same goes for watching plays.

Run through the rules: Before the show, explain to your child what she’ll be seeing and how she should act at a show. Answer any questions and address any worries. The theater usually opens 15 to 20 minutes before show time. Take your children in early and allow them time to get acclimated to the environment. This can be critically important for younger or more sensitive children.

Plan for snacks: Most theater companies don’t allow food or drinks inside the actual theater, so you may want to consider bringing a snack for before the show or during an intermission.

Hit the bathroom: If your child is potty trained, always visit the bathroom before the show begins!

Create an exit strategy: If your child’s having troubles, remove him or her from the theater. This emphasizes the importance of good behavior, as well as minimizing any potential negative impact on your fellow audience members. Don’t forget to discuss — before, after and even during — what theater-appropriate behavior looks like. After a time or two of being removed, kids will realize that it’s way more fun to be inside the theater than stuck outside.

Ask for help: If you have questions about anything, contact the theater or check out its website. Box office staff usually have impressively comprehensive knowledge of the shows and will be more than happy to answer any questions. This includes on the day of the show, too, so don’t be shy.

Relax and have fun: You’ll never know until you give it a go.

 Trina Greene lives in Farmington and has taught kindergarten, fourth and sixth grades as well as college math and interdisciplinary studies. She’s now a work-at-home mother to 3-year-old Ella and wife to James. As a family, they enjoy the theater, biking, hiking, traveling, reading and cooking (and eating)!