Reading aloud and acting out such tales can make a deep impression on children as they "try on" the roles of spiritual characters. Such role-playing is not only fun-it can instill a permanent goodness in our kids. Here are four suggestions for acting out plays and spiritual stories with kids.
1. Choose the story that fits your kid's interests.
When they are very young, one child may love animals while another prefers fairy tales, sports, or superheroes. The tale you select should grip the child's particular interest. My son loved elephants, monkeys, and other animals at the zoo, so I wove for him the tapestry of the inspiring deeds from the Jataka Tales. These are tales of the Buddha in his former lives as a monkey, elephant, deer, or dog. My son would draw pictures of, say, the scene when Buddha as the monkey king saved the lives of all his monkey followers, using his own body as the last link in a bridge. Then we'd act out the stories together or make animal shadow plays on the walls. Puppet shows are also fun to do with kids this age. Without a doubt these stories go deep into a child's consciousness; in my son's case, he would keep asking me questions about them all week.
2. Try do-it-yourself radio.
Some kids feel self-conscious about acting out stories on overtly spiritual themes. Many recoil from the overly sweet and good. As preteens, my son and his friends preferred video games and gadgets to spiritual animals. I wanted to find spiritual themes that would work for these skeptics. After we formed a home school, I remembered an excellent collection of radio plays that we performed. Preteens who were too shy to act on a stage were perfectly eager to speak into microphones behind a curtain and take the voice of a particular character. Somehow, dealing with the sound systems and hearing their performance back on tape took some of the self-consciousness out of it.
We spent much of the fall quarter preparing "The Next Voice You Hear," a radio play in which God interrupts a radio news broadcast and declares he is coming down to help sort out the mess human beings have made of the world. All you need for a radio play is the script, a simple sound and recording system, and several practice runs through the lines each kid has been given. We gave a rousing performance to the parents on Christmas Day. The kids were so excited some of them had to be reminded to open their presents.
For teens, reading plays after dinner can be great fun. Just take one of Charles Lamb's simplified plays of Shakespeare, or Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," or any play with energizing fun and good values. Have multiple copies of the script so that each person can take a seat in the living room and read their lines. It may seem pretty highbrow when you start out. But as the play progresses and the log in your fireplace turns to glowing embers, more and more feeling will go into the lines. Even without a stage or spectacle, the passion of the play will build into a force that no TV show can ever match.
4. Plan a full performance.
A large family or a group of friends can have a great time with this, but it takes lots of time and planning. Once again, choose a play that works with the dynamics of your kids. When, for example, our group of homeschoolers reached the teenage years, I chose the life of St. Francis but put much more emphasis on his rollicking early days with his buddies than on his pure saintliness (which made his spiritual transformation all the more real). Unlike other ways of acting out spiritual stories, a full play is a big project that requires a group effort. In our case, a parent who was an English teacher wrote a special script; and another who loved sewing created lovely and colorful costumes for each character. The full performance took months of memorizing lines and multiple rehearsals. But once we were ready, the kids took the St. Francis play not just to the parents and grandparents, but to several area schools. It was so spiritually moving that many adults wept, and through a generous grant, we were able to do one last performance that was professionally videoed.
Acting out plays and stories reminds me of the words of Aristotle, who said that performing and watching drama was the medicine to cure the ills in society. We need that cure right now. You can do your part by bringing spiritual stories, plays, and performances to your home, neighborhood, and town.