FIELD (Family Involvement in Early Language Development) ®
A Community Health and Wellness Program of Virginia Repertory Theatre
Virginia Rep's partners in the creation and implementation of FIELD are:
- ExCELL – Excellence in Children's Early Language and Literacy
- Family Lifeline
- Smart Beginnings Greater Richmond
- Richmond Public Libraries
- Henrico County Public Libraries
Assessment and Evaluation
For the independent, external evaluation design and implementation of FIELD, Virginia Rep contracts with Dr. Adam Winsler, Associate Chair and Professor of Applied Developmental Psychology; Dept. of Psychology, Human Development, and Family Services; George Mason University. Virginia Rep is a partner with the Mason Arts Research Center (MasonARC), Dr. Thalia Goldstein and Dr. Winsler, co-directors.
Virginia Rep is grateful to the Robins Foundation, the Community Foundation for a Greater Richmond, and many other individuals, corporations, and foundations for their support of FIELD.
Initial and Continuing Inspiration
Dr. Ronald Ferguson is an MIT-trained economist who focuses social science research on economic, social, and educational challenges. He has been on the faculty of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government since 1983, and serves as faculty director of the university-wide Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI).
By the late 1980s, Dr. Ferguson had begun to study education and youth development because academic skill disparities were contributing to growing wage disparity. In December 2007, Harvard Education Press published his book Toward Excellence with Equity: An Emerging Vision for Closing the Education Gap. A February 2011 profile of Dr. Ferguson in the New York Times stated: "There is no one in America who knows more about the gap than Ronald Ferguson."
In 2010, Dr. Ronald F. Ferguson was invited by Henrico County Public Schools to speak to parents and educators about "The Most Important Challenge Facing Education in America Today." Bruce Miller, Founding Producer at Virginia Repertory Theatre, attended Dr. Ferguson's presentation.
In his speech, Dr. Ferguson said that most if not all challenges connected with the Achievement Gap could be traced to the fact that a disproportionate percentage of children raised in low socioeconomic status (SES) families were not reading at grade level by third grade. He further indicated that this challenge could be traced back to the fact that many to most of these same children entered pre-school without the precursor skills that would qualify them as "reading ready," making it extremely difficult for their teachers to teach them to read. Finally, he traced this challenge back to what is often identified as the 30 Million Word Gap—the name given to research conducted in the 1990s that indicated that these same children heard, on average, 30 million fewer words delivered to them in conversation by their principal caregiver(s) between birth and age 3 than did their more affluent peers.
He cited the struggle that our nation was having to determine how best to empower low SES parents to create language- and gesture-rich environments for their infants and toddlers during this vital developmental time period. To Bruce Miller, this seemed like an opportunity for theatre artists to help. The seed for FIELD was planted, and has been growing ever since.
Dr. Ferguson's current focus as Harvard's AGI director is an initiative entitled Boston Basics, which is now spreading to other cities in a Basics National Network. It takes a socio-ecological saturation approach, collaborating with many partners to reach extended families with caregiving advice for infants and toddlers.
In 2018, the Capital Region Collaborative in Central Virginia announced the launch of RVA Basics as part of the Basics National Network. Virginia Repertory Theatre is a founding leadership partner in RVA Basics.
Our First Program – Space Baby
Our first FIELD program is Space Baby, a touring art installation and interactive performance for parents and their children age 9 months to 3 years old.
Space Baby was developed over a one-year period with extensive input from the targeted audience of low SES parents. Each Space Baby performance is different in that each performance is shaped by the interactions of the parents and children attending that particular show.
As a general rule, Space Baby is not presented in our theatre facilities. It tours to libraries, churches, public housing community rooms, and other neighborhood venues that are familiar and easily accessible to the targeted audience. We make every effort for the three teaching artists who introduce and perform in Space Baby to appear to come from the community in which we are performing. We promote Space Baby as "something fun you can do with your child," and never tout it as "parent training."
Based on input received from our earliest attendees, we provide food and beverages before or after each performance to raise enjoyment and encourage attendance.
The very young children in our audience sit in their parents' laps on colorful cushioned mats surrounding and within reach of the "stage area" as the multi-sensory performance takes place. Approximately 15 parents with children attend each intimate performance.
During the 20 minutes of an interactive Space Baby showing, the very busy mother character discovers during her daily tasks that the baby from outer space who is visiting her home is not as non-communicative as she had originally perceived. Even though the mother and child "speak" different languages, the Space Baby character is very interested in the mother's household chores: folding laundry, watering plants, cleaning house. Responding to Space Baby's lead, the mother character gestures, talks, sings, and ultimately (when it's time for bed) reads aloud to Space Baby. During these experiences of joint attention, and while never stopping all the work that must get done, the mother character learns that when she creates a language- and gesture-rich environment for her Space Baby, (s)he connects with and learns from her much more than she had thought possible.
Space Baby is part of the "theatre for the very young" movement—with a unique twist. To the best of our knowledge, all other "theatre for the very young" programs have as their primary beneficiary the very young child. With Space Baby, our primary beneficiaries are the low SES parents. During Space Baby performances, we model language- and gesture-rich behaviors for the parent. We model how parents can establish joint attention with their babies, follow their babies' lead, and how all of this can happen while completing rather than supplanting daily activities.
In brief, casual pre-show and post-show discussions, we thank and congratulate parents on attending with their child, on knowing that parents are their children's first and most important teachers, and on understanding the vital importance of talking (and singing) as teaching. During the performance, signs embedded within the "set" light up to reinforce the value to be realized if you "Tune In," "Talk More," and "Take Turns."
We present each child with a free, age appropriate board book as (s)he leaves the show. We're working to create and publish age appropriate editions of Space Baby picture books to offer as the take home gifts, enabling even low literacy parents to "read aloud" to their children the story they saw together and participated in that day.
We're working on a Spanish translation of Space Baby, with Latinx actors, and a Spanish take home book.
Thus far, our independent, external evaluation has been positive. Space Baby is a great success, and we are proud of the program. But perhaps the most important lesson we have learned in the first two years during which the show has been developed and implemented is this: despite the best efforts of Virginia Rep and its partners, we are failing to reach the majority of the parents who stand to benefit most from the program.
In response, Space Baby performances were put on hold during 2018-19. Phoenecia Hill was hired to develop, strengthen, and sustain relationships with authentic community-based leaders and organizations that can help us gain trust and access within low SES communities. Hannah Miller, Associate Director of Community Health and Wellness, entered the Harvard Graduate School of Education to earn her Masters, to ensure that all of FIELD's programs are in sync with the latest research in early childhood development.
Is Space Baby FIELD's Only Program?
No. It is our first program. Other programs yet to be identified will follow.
We are currently working on assembling a summit in Richmond in 2020 that will bring together all RVA leaders and organizations interested in addressing early language development for the betterment of our community. The goals of the summit will be to get to know each other, to begin working together in strategic collaboration rather than independently, to explore the creation of a common curricula that can inform all of our work, and to launch a community conversation that will put all of our work in context of a larger community discussion.
Why is a Professional Theatre Taking a Leadership Role with a Program Like FIELD?
In 1975, when Bruce Miller and Phil Whiteway founded Theatre IV, which now trades as Virginia Repertory Theatre, they chose the name Theatre IV because they sought "national caliber excellence in the arts, education, children's health, and community leadership." Those four tenets remain in the Mission Statement of Virginia Rep today. In our 2018 strategic planning, our Community Health and Wellness Program emerged as a continuing major pillar of our operation. Virginia Rep continues to use the art form of theatre to serve the community in traditional and exceptional ways.
How Can I Obtain More Information, Attend a Performance, or Join the Team?
For more information on FIELD or Virginia Rep's Community Health and Wellness Program, please contact Bruce Miller, Founding Producer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.