Engaging children with societal issues

By James Haddrell, Artistic and Executive Director at Greenwich Theatre

In recent years a new term has entered our vocabulary – the echo chamber. In literal terms, an echo chamber is a place where you only hear your own voice echoed back at you. If you only hear your own voice, that means you also only hear your own opinions, and that is where the notion of an echo chamber is dangerous, both for adults and for children.

We all spend a huge amount of our lives online now, whether we are playing games, watching television, communicating with friends or shopping, but in all of those areas, our own choices are picked up and amplified back at us. If we play certain games, then other similar games are recommended to us. Netflix, iplayer and the others all analyse the TV we watch and suggest similar programmes to us. Social media sites and advertisers track our activity and guide us towards new products, activities or people that match our profile somehow. It seems to make life easier, it appears to take away the risk of wasting our time with something we don’t like or won’t agree with, but it actually means we are rarely exposed to new ideas.

This has become as true for children as it is for adults. Talking to primary school children over a series of projects in the last year, it has been amazing to discover how many of them use the internet for their entertainment every evening and every weekend. They watch youtube, another site which recommends additional viewing. They play online games with each other, so even when they’ve left school they’re engaging with the same peer group. They communicate via social media. Just like adults, they are subject to all of the risks of the online echo chamber phenomenon.

I am not lobbying for children to be less exposed to the internet. There are at least as many benefits to the internet as there are threats, and parental controls can make it a lot safer than it has been in previous years. My worry is that children are not being exposed to enough new ideas – but a trip to the theatre can do just that.

As an example, at Greenwich Theatre we are currently presenting a production of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It is a story that many children will know, at least in its most basic form, from the Disney cartoon, but it is a story that has a lot to say to children of all ages. For the very young it is a story about the importance of friendship and building relationships with those who are different. For older children it has a lot to say about the importance of law rather than chaos. For those who are older still, it is a warning about the risk that humankind poses to the natural world. In recent months we have presented shows about global warming and the importance of protecting bees.

A trip to the theatre can stimulate thought and discussion about all of those ideas and more, and children are ready and eager to engage with them. They are not daft. They are younger versions of us – they have less experience of the world but they are just as keen to interrogate ideas and formulate opinions and that is something that should be encouraged in every part of their development, not just at school. If we want the next generation to engage in politics, to challenge the inequalities in the world and to interrogate what goes on around them, they need to start exploring new ideas now – and that can begin by escaping the sealed echo chamber of the internet and heading to the theatre.

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