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Preschoolers inspired by theatre

CLIMB Theatre actors Michael Ehrecke and Atim Opoka (in the background) encourage Peg DeYoung’s preschoolers to recreate characters – spiders, kangaroos and birds, for instance – from the podcast “Faraway Woods.” Pictured, from left, are Lillian Hill, Landen Andersen, Walter Harrison III and Brooklyn Hillesland. (Shannon Geisen / Enterprise)

Sticky Wicky, Whimple Snivel and Pladdahpelephant – the fanciful characters of “Faraway Woods” – are sparking imaginations and social skills of local preschoolers.  In partnership with MAHUBE-OTWA Head Start, CLIMB Theatre is bringing the program to preschools throughout Minnesota, including Park Rapids.  “Faraway Woods” is an arts-based, early childhood program that teaches valuable skills, like empathy, teamwork and inviting kids to play.  Professional actors visit every two weeks to offer acting classes.  

CLIMB Theatre actors Michael Ehrecke and Atim Opoka stopped by the Frank White Education Center Thursday, giving drama lessons to preschoolers and Head Start students.  The program has two components: a series of six audio dramas delivered by podcast and follow-up arts activities that teachers and parents can do with their children.  After preschoolers listen to each episode, CLIMB’s actor-educators visit the classroom and use the audio dramas as a springboard to teach children about theatre.  The classes consist of age-appropriate activities and theatre games.  Funding is provided through an Arts Learning Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board.  “Faraway Woods” sprung from the imagination of playwright and CLIMB Theatre Artistic Director Peg Wetli.  

“This is unlike any project we’ve done before,” Wetli said. “Podcasting is a new technology that lets us deliver an old medium – audio drama. Kids will get the chance to use their imagination as they listen to the world of ‘Faraway Woods,’ meet delightful characters and learn important social-emotional skills.”  Initially, students thought the audio-only podcasts would be watched on a computer or read from a book, said Samantha Langlie, a Park Rapids Head Start teacher.  “It’s pretty cool for the kids simply because they are so used to watching TV and playing video games,” said Head Start teacher Edie Kyllonen. “It’s been great for developing their listening skills.”  

Each podcast is 13 to 15 minutes long. Musical interludes allow for a bathroom break, if need be.  “All the characters have very distinct voices. They’ve really done a nice job,” said preschool teacher Peg DeYoung, “Even some of my younger kids understand what it’s all about.”  “Faraway Woods” creatures are purely imaginary, so one child can envision an animal with purple fur and long hair, while another can pretend it’s fat, green and bald, DeYoung said.  Thursday marked the second acting lesson by Ehrecke and Opoka.  They urged children to recreate characters from “Faraway Woods” by using their voices and physical movement.  They also discussed the recent “Faraway Woods” episode and how the creatures felt, asking students to think about what “happy” and “sad” looks like.  Since the lessons began, the actors have become celebrities, sightings eagerly noted by youngsters, said DeYoung.  “They’re very interactive with the kids,” she said. “The kids are really connected and are so connected.”  

As part of the grant, all six episodes of “Faraway Woods” will be available to the public via CLIMB’s website (www.farawaywoods.org) and iTunes.  The audio dramas will be released for free Tuesday, Feb. 16, along with self-guided games and activities that parents or teachers can do with their children.  “Research has shown that when kids develop pro-social skills in early childhood, it’s a better predictor for success than almost anything else, including academics,” said Wetli. “We’re very passionate about this project and this it will be a wonderful experience for Minnesota preschoolers.”  CLIMB Theatre, an award-winning educational theatre company headquartered in Inver Grove Heights, tours schools in a five-state area, performing plays, classes and other creative works to inspire young people. Its website is http://climb.org.

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