RSC project will help four-year-old children find the fun in Shakespeare

Children as young as four will study Shakespeare in a project being launched today by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The RSC is holding its first national conference for primary school teachers to encourage them to use the Bard's plays imaginatively in the classroom from reception classes onwards.

The conference will be told that they should learn how Shakespearian characters like Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream are "jolly characters" and how to write about them.

At present, the national curriculum does not require pupils to approach Shakespeare until secondary school. All it says is that pupils should study "texts drawn from a variety of cultures and traditions" and "myths, legends and traditional stories".

"Some teachers can and do choose to incorporate Shakespeare within this selection, although probably a majority of children first experience detailed study of Shakespeare in secondary schools," said a spokes-man for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the curriculum watchdog.

However, educationists at the RSC believe children will gain a better appreciation of Shakespeare if they are introduced to him at a much younger age. "Even very young children can enjoy Shakespeare's plays," said Mary Johnson, head of the learning department. "It is just a question of pitching it for the age group. Even reception classes and key stage one pupils (five- to seven-year-olds) can enjoy his stories.

"For instance, if you build up Puck as a character who skips, children of that age can enjoy the character. They can be inspired by Puck and they could even start writing about him at that age."

It is the RSC's belief that building the Bard up as a fun playwright in primary school could counter some of the negative images conjured up about teaching Shakespeare in secondary schools. Then, pupils have to concentrate on scenes from the plays to answer questions for compulsory English national-curriculum tests for 14-year-olds. Critics of the tests have complained that pupils no longer have the time to study or read the whole play - and therefore lose interest in Shakespeare.

However, Ms Johnson is encouraging teachers to present 20-minute versions of the plays - a classroom version of the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) which told his 37 plays in 97 minutes - to give pupils a flavour of the whole drama.

The RSC's venture - which has persuaded literary consultants charged with delivering the compulsory literacy hour as well as teachers to attend the event in Stratford-upon-Avon - coincides with a call for schools to allow pupils to be more creative in writing about Shakespeare.

Professor Kate McLuskie, the new director of the University of Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute - also based in Stratford - said it was time to get away from the idea that there was "a right answer" to any question about Shakespeare.

Her first foray into the world of Shakespeare was to berate him as a misogynist in a 1985 essay but she now insists this should not be interpreted as a criticism of his works - although she admits: "I probably wouldn't have written it quite the same way if I had been writing it now.

"What we should be doing is making sure that someone is getting something out of Shakespeare," she said. "People are very scared about getting the right answer. I know it's difficult but I don't care if they come up with a right answer that I can agree with about Shakespeare."

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