Could live theatre help prevent eating disorders in children?

Children seem to be worrying about their weight and body image at an ever younger age. Part of the problem for professionals who wish to help is finding a positive message that is relevant to children and which engages their attention. New research by Jess Haines and colleagues suggests live theatre could be one way to do this.

Eighteen children at an ethnically diverse school in Minneapolis volunteered to help develop and perform a play about body image and healthy eating. One day a week for ten weeks the children worked with a local theatre production company to write the script and rehearse the play, before performing it in front of other pupils, teachers and parents.

Preparations for the play involved the children writing a poem about their favourite body part to be included in the script, and writing a story about teasing at their school, also to be acted out in the play. According to the researchers, the final script “communicated messages about feeling good about your body, alternative ways to communicate with peers other than teasing, and options for healthy eating and being physically active.”

After the final performances, Haines and her colleagues interviewed 15 of the participating children in three focus groups of five. Qualitative analysis of the children’s comments suggested they had enjoyed the process and that the play had been beneficial to them in several ways, including improving their body satisfaction (“You should be happy with your body,” one child said) and increasing their resilience to derogatory remarks made by others.

A key feature of the intervention was that it appeared to engage the children and they reported finding it particularly relevant to their lives. This echoes other health research showing that involving participants in the development and delivery of an intervention leads to it being more relevant and culturally sensitive to its intended audience. Another bonus was that the play was well attended by parents, thus engaging them with the health message too.

The researchers cautioned that their sample size was small, and that randomly controlled trials are needed to provide “more objective measures of behavioural change [that] would provide stronger evidence of the effectiveness of the…theatre programme as a behaviour change strategy.”

Haines, J., NeumarkSztainer, D., Morris, B. (2008). Theater as a Behavior Change Strategy: Qualitative Findings from a School-Based Intervention. Eating Disorders, 16(3), 241-254. DOI: 10.1080/10640260802016829

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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