Who is the performance for?
Every year, in around October, the requests for suggestions start: "what songs can we perform at our end of year graduation/concert?" or something along those lines. And every year I wonder - who is the performance for?
Let's travel back in time to 1988. I was 4 years old and attended a preschool that was attached to a primary school. Our preschool was invited to perform at the end of year Christmas concert that the school held. For weeks we were gathered to practice Christmas songs. Did I hate it? No - I was pretty into it. Were there children who would have rather continued playing in home corner or climbing on the fort? Absolutely. As the day approached we made Santa beards using paper and cotton wool. Did I hate it? No - but I probably would have preferred to make something else. When the night of the performance came, did I hate it? No - but there were children who did. There were children who cried that they didn't want to. There were children who stood awkwardly on stage, staring at their feet. There were children who would have preferred to be off playing with their friends.
Fast forward to 2003. I was working in my first permanent role in early childhood and we were doing almost the exact same thing as I had experienced years before, just as it had always been done in that service. And, the response was the same as it had been when I'd been 4.
The following year, we decided to do something different. We reflected as a team on the purpose of these end of year performances. We asked ourselves questions like:
- What do the children want to do?
- What do the families want?
- Why is this the standard approach?
- What is the performance for?
- Who is the performance for?
- How does a performance benefit some children, and disadvantage others?
- Is this the only way to share what children know, have learned or are passionate about?
- How does a performance align with our philosophy?
Sure, they were hard questions at times, and we had mixed emotions about some of the responses. But ultimately we established that having a performance where children were not forced, but essentially expected, to participate, was just not in line with our philosophy - one that valued play, choice, freedom, creativity and individuality.
We talked to the children about not doing a concert, and asked if there was anything that they would like to share with their families instead. The book Wombat Stew had been a favourite all year, so after much discussion, we agreed that we would put on a performance of Wombat Stew. The children could choose how they got involved. Some children didn't want to be in the performance but wanted to make costumes. Others wanted to be in the performance, but didn't want to say anything, so took on different roles. Some children worked together to design an invitation for the families.
The response from families to the change in event - especially those who had been at the service for several years and had come to expect a concert - was mixed, of course. But when showtime came and the families saw how committed the children were, and heard about the many ways that their children had been involved, they were convinced.
Despite the success of Wombat Stew, we quickly came to realise that we didn't need an end of year performance. We put on small performances that were child led, at random times throughout the year. One year, a small group of children even planned a whole wedding and invited families to attend!
We ditched the end of year performance/concert. We took away the fear for some children, yet still ensured there were opportunities for others to share and entertain in a way that they wanted to. There were events throughout the year that were entwined in projects - such as art exhibitions - and regular sharing of children's learning and ideas through meaningful documentation and conversation. At the end of the year, we gathered in a local park for a picnic dinner. The children and families played and connected and there was no pressure to perform - just a celebration of a year well spent.