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Explore paintings through drama

Susanna Steele, University of Greenwich, gives suggestions for teachers on how to explore paintings through drama, based on 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump'

Susanna Steele, University of Greenwich, gives suggestions for teachers on how to explore paintings through drama.

When planning work based on a painting, teachers need to spend time looking at it before introducing it to the class: noticing what is happening; what draws attention and sparks interest and what aspects of the human situation presented in the painting might be of interest to the children.


As with preparing work based on a piece of literature, planning begins with reading and it is the work that the teacher does in preparation that gives depth to subsequent work in the classroom. 

Paintings can offer rich contexts for drama and writing in the classroom and spending time exploring what potential the painting presents for engaging children's interest and imagination is an essential part of the preparation.

Thinking about paintings in this way means that the work focuses on a learning-led approach rather than an objective-driven one.

Take a personal interest

For inspiration on how to develop methods of looking at a painting with children and also to guide you in your preliminary encounter with the painting, see How to read a painting.

The more personal and professional interest you take in the painting, the greater potential there will be in the classroom for increasing the depth of pupils' engagement and deepening understanding.

There may be particular outcomes or knowledge, skills and understanding that you want to focus on but, at the initial planning stage, set these aside and be prepared to have the same open curiosity about the painting that you will later expect from the class. 

Focus on looking and explore the detail of the image:

  • Imagine yourself into the moment the artist has shown
  • Notice relationships between figures
  • Become aware of when other background information might be helpful in deepening your understanding and do the necessary research.

It is out of this encounter that ideas that have the potential for exploration in the classroom will arise.

Next: Background research