Saturday, 9 March, 2013 - 00:00

The importance of role play and heritage experiences for children.
A common agony of parenthood is having to watch a child 'learn by
experience', usually in the context of doing something they have been
warned against. However, experiencing something in the first person can
be a valuable learning tool, helping kids understand the messages of
history in a very personal way.

Educators have long embraced the idea of learning through doing and a
number of institutions around Australia offer role play and interactive
learning experiences for students. Old Parliament House in Canberra has
a range of educational programs that allow students to be part of the
story with the conviction that participating in a heated political
debate in the chamber of parliament house is a far more effective tool
for teaching the rules and constitutional responsibilities that come
with government than simply walking through the room and a child who
goes through the experience of 'electing' their chosen candidate for
Prime Minister is far more likely to appreciate the meaning of this
activity when they observe it in real life.

Helen McHugh, Education Manager, and her team at Old Parliament House
have developed a program of role play experiences that allow students
from early primary to university level to step into the character of
someone from the past. "It is really important for students to be active
and role play enables them to take part in the action," she says.

One of the programs, focused on secondary students, enacts the
controversial dismissal of Labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the
Governor General. "The students use the words the characters actually
spoke and this helps them understand not only what happened but the
motivation behind the actions of the people involved. We want them to
empathise with the people who have made historic decisions, to think
'I'm a bit like that, maybe I could make a decision like that too'," she

Of course, not all children are keen to take up a lead role in front
of their peers, something the educators are sensitive to when developing
their programs. "It doesn't suit all personalities, so we have role
plays that are less confronting," explains Helen. "For example, there is
a primary program that allows the whole group to be politicians
discussing the Franklin dam proposal. Students can choose to hear and
react to the discussion or take a lead role."

Many of the programs are scripted, allowing children to hear and
speak the actual words of the historical characters they are playing,
but for some, a lack of fluency in reading can make reading from a
script difficult. "Some kids are really good actors but reading can be a
problem," says Helen. "In this case, we give them a costume which helps
to 'fix' them in a character and give some instructions on appropriate
emotions and attitudes for that character. For example, if they are
playing the Speaker, we ask them what sort of a person the Speaker would
need to be. If they say 'strong', we ask them to show us how they act

According to Helen, children get very involved in the experience and
their reactions after the role play demonstrate a personal engagement
with the story they have participated in. " Students start taking
ownership of the event," says Helen. " One day, during the Whitlam
dismissal tour, when the presenter described the Prime Minister being
handed the letter of dismissal a student reacted 'Aw...harsh' . They can
get really emotional and walk out talking about what they have just
experienced and feeling challenged, affronted or powerful depending on
the role they have played."

Helen points out that there are no 'good guys or bad guys' in their
role plays. "We don't value laden the roles. We want the students to
feel that all sides and opinions are valid. We work hard with opposition
and try to talk about the reasoning behind why the characters are
standing for a particular cause and the challenges of being in power."

Kids are used to making decisions for themselves but not necessarily
for others. Helen says feedback from teachers shows that the role plays
often lead to students having a clearer understanding of what it means
to be a good citizen and applying this knowledge in their school

Surveys of teachers immediately after the program underline the value of the participative experience with comments such as:

"The role plays really helped the students understand what can be at times a difficult concept."

"Role play always engages the students, makes the learning experience
more real and helps them to remember and appreciate information

"Our trip here always brings 'Democracy' and 'Parliament' to life."

To add to the realism of the experience, Old Parliament House
commissions costumes for students to wear while they are acting out key
roles. "We research the historical detail to make sure the costumes are
correct then our seamstress makes up the outfits in three sizes to allow
for as much range as possible." Helen is quick to point out that the
physical and emotional comfort of the students is a priority throughout
the tour. "Their comfort is very important and we have strategies in
place for students who perhaps nominate for a role then feel they don't
want to continue or feel uncomfortable once they are in costume."
Secondary students, rather than wearing full costumes, use photographic
masks to identify themselves as the character they are playing.

Teacher comments often focus on how much the effort with costuming enhances the overall experience for students:

"The flair of the costumes makes a difference, makes it more real."

"Dressing up and role playing brings the experience to life and maintains interest levels."

"They really enjoyed dressing up and watching their friends in action. Photo opportunities were also appreciated."

"An amazing sense of history is created."

"Experience of the heritage building was excellent."

Amazingly, all of the briefing, costuming and role play is contained
in a one hour time slot, allowing teachers to take advantage of other
experiences available in Canberra on the same day. "We had a group of
kids come directly from watching question time one day and the child
playing the Prime Minister mimicked exactly the behaviour he had just
witnessed in the house," says Helen.

Old Parliament House opened as a museum in 1992 and educational
programs began in 1993 and have been a popular choice for teachers
trying to engage students in the political history of Australia ever
since. Teachers come from all over the country with their students and
those coming long distances can also avail themselves of the Parliament
and Civics Education Rebate (PACER) to ease the cost to parents and

"They can get really emotional and walk out talking about what they have just experienced."