Drama activities as ideational resources for primary-grade children in urban science classes

Varelas, M. et al (2010). Drama activities as ideational resources for primary-grade children in urban science classes. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(3), 302-325.


This qualitative case study examines how drama enactments of scientific concepts—in particular, matter and the food web in the forest—enhanced scientific learning in grades one, two, and three at five Midwestern elementary schools. The researcher found that students used their bodies as tools simultaneously representing physical entities moving through space, social objects negotiating relationships, and metaphorical entities of scientific concepts. The experience of embodying science allowed students to develop a deeper understanding of the ideas, and create a personally connected and engaged learning environment that made science learning collaborative, creative, and dynamic.

Key Findings:

  • Drama offered students a way to confront scientific ideas in such a way that they were actively expressing and articulating their understandings in a multimodal embodied way with both verbal and non-verbal components.
  • Students were able to differentiate between ideas that they were forming as they learned new science concepts and things they already knew from their personal experience of the world.
  • Multimodal ways of dramatizing science ideas allowed students to encounter ambiguity of meaning; problem-solve through re-negotiating understandings; and develop different ways to communicate understanding.
  • Scientific ideas were embodied so that students applied imagined thoughts and feelings to gain deeper understanding from multiple perspectives. This personal connection to ideas placed learning in real life context allowing students to experiment with imagining what it would be like to be part of a scientific process and bringing empathy and creativity to science class.

Significance of the Findings:

Researchers found that dramatic enactments of science concepts allowed students to connect to science learning through movement, language, social interaction, and collaborative curiosity. Through transmediation students built a facility and flexibility with their new knowledge. This modeling brought conceptual worlds of science to the real world of elementary-aged students. Through collaboration and encouragement from teachers, this ‘hybrid’ space became a place where students engaged with science from multiple perspectives (actors, directors, audience) and took ownership of their learning. Modeling science in this way marks a break with traditional dualistic approach to science education where ideas are right or wrong, reasonable or emotional. Instead, students better understood the reality that multiple components support scientific concepts.


The study follows six classrooms (two classrooms each of first, second, and third grades) from five schools in a large Midwestern city. Researchers observed classroom teachers as they integrated drama into science classes. The study was part of a collaborative research project, Integrated Science-Literacy Enactments, between a university and the elementary schools. In general, students represented a diverse population both linguistically (English and Spanish) and socio-economically. Students’ participation included playing a role, being a director, or being a member of the audience. The Matter Unit asked students to move their bodies through various size spaces, different speeds and relationships to other ‘molecules’ (students) according to their state of matter (solid, liquid, or gas). For example, when students were gases, they moved faster and independently of each other. In the Forest Unit, students took on the role of animals, plants, or inanimate objects in the food web system in a forest. They improvised a play in which each actor had a role in this interactive ecosystem. Through the process of creating the play, students learned from each other as well as the teacher as they negotiated the interactions of key players in the food web system. Researchers collected data in the form of field notes, videotapes, and transcripts from the classes. They watched the video without sound in order to play closer attention to the interactions between and among students and teachers. The observations were coded and analyzed together with transcripts of the videos and field notes. Researchers analyzed data using Halliday’s social semiotic metafunctions of communication: ideational (creation and evolution of ideas), interpersonal and textual (includes both content learning and context of learning). Participating teachers and researchers created summaries that included observations and responses to lessons.

Limitations of the Research:

  • It is not clear if there was any specific drama technique taught to students.
  • Researchers focused on the class as a whole and did not track individual students’ progress.
  • There was no pre or post testing on content learning.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Would working with a drama teacher intensify the experience and learning for students? How would drama-science integration work at the high school level? What would a comparative study between a similar curriculum with low-SES students and high-SES students yield in student outcomes? Does drama-science integration increase comprehension and retention of science learning objectives?