Across California, student participation in disciplines like theater and dance is lower than it is for other fields like visual arts. Pasadena Unified is trying to bring those forms to its youngest learners, from transitional kindergarten to first grade.
The district wanted to focus on early learners because of the benefits to their development, said Pasadena Unified arts coordinator Jennifer Olson.
"Theater in particular can really help children develop social-emotional skills, and develop their oral language skills through theater integration," Olson explained.
To do so, they started piloting a partnership with the Music Center in 30 classrooms. This year, Olson says, the program will reach 330 classrooms in 18 schools. That's over 3,500 students, including the young learners and special education classrooms.
One of those classrooms is Ms. Magalong's kindergarten class at Willard Elementary.
Music Center teaching artist Peter Kors – the students call him Mr. Peter – starts by doing an activity called "The Mirror." One student sits up front, while the others copy their movements. Their teacher, Penny Magalong, says students have even started doing "The Mirror" amongst themselves, when they come back from a break.
Afterwards, he pulls out a book filled with drawings of animals. He asks them to name the animals, and they walk around a makeshift stage pretending to be that animal. The catch is they can't run into each other.
Kors says in this day's lessons, he focused on skills important to both acting and everyday life, like responding to cues, "remembering–because we're always reflecting, remembering what we did, and teamwork."
Kindergarten student Gracie Colton, who is five years old, says she looks forward to when Mr. Peter comes to her class "because he's super fun."
But for administrators like Olson and Willard principal Dr. Angela Elizondo Baxter, it's about more than just fun.
"They are able to feel confident in a classroom. They're able to feel engaged," Baxter explained. "And they feel like school is a place that matters and it's not just sitting and book learning. It's really getting up and doing things."