It’s Monday morning and four young actors are beginning their week by singing, dancing, jumping and hula hooping for an audience of 800 Clovis Unified third- and fourth-graders. A case of the Mondays is not the case for this quartet from Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre — a Northern California touring theater troupe that performs plays about making healthy lifestyle choices.
The Educational Theatre, part of Oakland-based healthcare company Kaiser Permanente’s educational outreach arm, produces three age-appropriate plays that target concerns and challenges faced by specific age groups. The performances for CUSD — eight in total — are part of a larger 2015-16 district-wide initiative: thanks to a grant from Kaiser Permanente, the Foundation for Clovis Schools was awarded $90,000 to spend on health education.
Some of those funds were used to pay for transportation and facility-use fees associated with the performances (the cost of the performances and theater group were donated by Kaiser), and part of the grant will be used to bring a motivational speaker, who will speak about overcoming addiction, to the district’s five high schools in January. The remaining funds will be reserved for health and wellness mini-grants of up to $5,000, which the Foundation will award to district teachers.
Although teachers at all grade levels can apply for the mini-grants, today’s play, “The Best Me,” is geared toward third- and fourth-graders. Its characters wrestle with healthy lifestyle challenges famililar to many kids — and their parents: How can we make healthier choices about the food we put on our plates and in our bodies? How much time should we spend exercising? How much screen time (time spent playing video games, watching TV and/or using smart phones and tablets) is too much?
Through high energy songs and dance numbers — and a little audience participation — the young characters ultimately pledge to make some healthy lifestyle changes that include limiting their screen time to an hour each day, engaging in an hour of daily physical activity, eating half a plate of fresh fruits and vegetables each day and drinking less juice and soda. The hope is that kids who see the play will choose to do the same. As a reminder, kids who see the show receive a magnet with these “Best Me” promises on it to remind them to make healthy choices daily.
“Third- and fourth-graders are beginning to make their own choices,” said Kelly Avants, Clovis Unified’s chief communications officer. “A great deal of the message is very relevant to our kids’ lives.”
Brendan Simon, a program coordinator for KP Educational Theatre and the play’s director, agreed.
“Kaiser Permanente believes that theater is an exceptional and unique vehicle to educate young people,” he said. “It engages hearts and minds in a different way. Students are able to see people they relate to deal with similar challenges — it helps activate something sometimes traditional classroom teaching can’t.”
Part of that is due to the way the message is delivered. The show’s cast wears brightly colored clothing and costumes, performs hip-hop-influenced musical numbers and references favorite activities like playing soccer and video games. Characters who carry soda cans and handheld gaming devices wherever they go earn big laughs from the audience. But the challenges they face — problems at home, bullying, lack of time or space to exercise — will also resonate with many of the students in attendance. In taking steps to overcome these challenges, they show students how they, too, can begin to make similar, simple lifestyle changes.
“We are hearing constant feedback that students are inspired to make healthy changes,” said Simon. “The medium of theater plus follow-up activities (teachers receive a resource bag containing jump ropes, a soccer ball, a CD with music from the show, a guide with additional classroom activities and lesson plans, a poster and a class set of wristbands and magnets) create a sustainable message for change.”
Through follow-up assessments conducted three and six months later, he said, they have found that two-thirds of students who see the play retain its message.
It’s a message that goes hand-in-hand with the district’s motto: “Be the best you can be in mind, body and spirit.”
“From the start of the district, we have always emphasized the importance of how healthy bodies make healthy minds,” said Avants. “This is a unique way to deliver a message we’re always trying to emphasize in the classroom.”