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Originally published Wednesday, March 28, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Hey, kids, let's put on a show!

New book shows benefits of play acting for kids.

Chicago Tribune

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Your kids are out of school for spring break. How about putting on a show?

Carol Bouzoukis, a child drama specialist with 25 years of experience, has developed a way to take children's natural affinity for play acting and use it to further their all-around development.

When children use their imagination, they can work through many things, says Bouzoukis, author of "Encouraging Your Child's Imagination: A Guide and Stories for Play Acting" (Rowman & Littlefield). "It can be therapeutic, they can work out scenarios. They act that through and find resolution, even if only in play.

"That can help them later. On the bus maybe there's a bully, and if they just did a play where they're running from the wolf and it resolves itself happily, the bully might not seem so bad. Children can gain a mastery of their world through their play."

Bouzoukis says that how children play has changed dramatically over the years. Now it's often with a screen (television, computers, Xboxes) — methods of entertainment that lack human interaction. Play, or play acting, can fill that void.

"Imagination, Einstein said, is more important than intelligence because when you imagine you can think outside the box," she says. "You can invent and create things that weren't there."

In her book, she explains her Story Drama Method and shows parents, as well as teachers or caregivers, how to polish their skills so they can lead the children. The book also includes nine stories that can be acted out, and guidelines for each.

"They don't need scripts or props," she says. "If you don't use (a script), they can make it more personal, they can come up with their own words."

The method, she says, "works very well because when children engage in play, that's how they communicate, how they come to understand their world. Dramatic play is just an advanced form of play."

Here are some highlights of the Story Drama Method from "Encouraging Your Child's Imagination: A Guide and Stories for Play Acting:"

The basics: A child or children, the ability to tell a story, and a private place to rehearse. Classic stories work well because kids are familiar with them.

Narrator: An adult, or even an older sibling, can take this role. Duties involve reading the story for the kids, acting it out, then helping them choose the part they want to play. During the performance, the narrator keeps things moving by covering entrances and exits ("Then the elephant came in") and directing the group. Bouzoukis's book offers narrator tips. "I start many stories with all the children asleep. Children love to pretend to be asleep, and it helps with crowd control."

Roles: Kids can take on any role. If someone wants to be a cat but there isn't one in the story, the narrator can add a cat. "Let them be what they want to be. Bend the casting," she says. "A little boy might want to be the mom. We've had that. They giggle. We stop the class from giggling and tell them that anybody can be a mom, and we take it from there. Kids like to explore other roles when they're young. It's healthy for them to try to walk in other people's shoes, so to speak."

Costumes: Full outfits aren't necessary and can get in the way. "The children can use more of their imagination if they have just a hat," Bouzoukis says.

Public performances: A child will benefit whether the play is acted out casually or as a performance for others. Bouzoukis says kids seem to get more out of a full performance: the curtain call, parents and siblings in attendance, video cameras running, etc. But if it's a full performance, keep the crowd small for younger children.

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