The Stage as a Classroom: How Kaiser Permanente Uses Educational Theatre to Bring Health Education to Life

Kaiser Permanente Policy Stories, V3, No.6

Educational Theatre is Kaiser Permanente’s broad effort to tackle the many health issues facing kids today.

The Stage as a Classroom

The students of Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in San Leandro, California are in for a treat today: a troupe of actors has come to their school to perform. As the kids enter the multipurpose room, one actor shows off his hula hoop skills. Music fills the room, and the kids are smiling and moving their bodies. Once the kids are settled, actors burst onto the stage, dressed in colorful outfits, dancing, and clapping their hands. “If you’re ready for The Best Me show, say, ‘Oh, yeah!’” one actor calls out. “Oh yeah!” the kids shout back. The performance that follows is not your typical play – it’s an interactive, high-energy
show in which actors in Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre Program engage the kids on how to eat healthy and be active. The show is part of Kaiser Permanente’s broad effort to tackle the many health issues facing kids today and represents a unique approach health systems can take to improve community health.

Addressing the Obesity Epidemic

Children face many health issues in the United States. Among the most pressing is childhood obesity. Although rates of obesity recently declined in young children, 17 percent of children aged 2-19 are obese, and the rate of childhood obesity has nearly tripled since 1980.1 The federal government has been proactive in addressing the childhood obesity epidemic. In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama launched the “Let’s Move” campaign, which aims to end childhood obesity within one generation. Recent legislation requires schools participating in the Federal School Lunch Program to develop, evaluate and report on school wellness policies. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program includes multiple strategies to get kids exercising at least 60 minutes every day.

The Important Role that Schools Play

Schools play a critical role in creating an environment that encourages students to live healthy lives. But many schools – particularly those with limited resources —face challenges in creating these environments. With tight budgets and increasing pressures to use classroom time for test preparation, schools may lack the bandwidth to pursue wellness initiatives. To help them, other entities – such as health systems and community organizations – need to be involved in school-based prevention initiatives, especially in places where obesity rates are high.

Bringing Health Lessons to Life

Kaiser Permanente launched the Educational Theatre Program in the 1980s to address health issues impacting students, teachers, staff, and their families. The program was borne out of the recognition that health education is much more effective when it is
fun, interactive, and uses storytelling to captivate people intellectually and emotionally.
In the Educational Theatre Program, we offer free, live performances to local schools, with a priority on schools in low-income communities, where resources are few and the burden of disease is often the greatest.

In these shows, actors tackle a plethora of topics such as healthy eating and physical activity, in addition to subjects that can be difficult to talk about, such as bullying, mental health, interpersonal violence and sexual health. Health lessons are brought to life through engaging story lines, characters, music, dance, humor, and interaction between actors and audience.

For example, in “The Amazing Food Detective,” a young soccer player enlists a quirky detective to solve the mystery of why he doesn’t have the energy to play his favorite sport. Along the way, kids in the audience help solve the mysteries, and learn how to eat healthy, exercise, and limit screen time. Having relatable characters and story lines is a critical component for engaging youth. The Educational Theatre Program employs actors who are ethnically similar to the students and who wear clothes that local kids wear. The performances include music that local kids listen to and messages that reflect what kids
and families are experiencing in their communities (the food kids eat, for example, varies across communities and cultures). Program content is evidence-based and informed through research, Kaiser Permanente health advisors – such as pediatricians and dieticians – and community health experts and educators. In addition to the performances, we offer:

  • Supplemental educational materials that teachers and parents can use to reinforce lessons
  • Health workshops and performances for the broader community
  • Youth leadership programs
  • Residency programs, where actor-educators are embedded in a school or community

 Kids Remember the Lessons They Learn

The Educational Theatre Program has reached over 15 million students and their families across nine states and the District of Columbia. In 2013 alone, there were 5,680  performances or events. A 20112 study showed that Educational Theatre performances increased students’ knowledge about healthy eating and physical activity. Prior to seeing a performance, 17 percent of children correctly answered four basic questions about diet and exercise. Immediately after seeing a performance, 63 percent answered all four questions correctly. Three weeks later, the proportion of children who answered all
questions correctly had declined only slightly. Numbers aside, the myriad letters from people who experience the Educational Theatre Program are a testament to its impact, and clearly show that conversations about health issues don’t stop after the performance ends. “After the program, the kids were all a-buzz about it and danced and sang!” wrote a
principal from Riverside, California. “I learned a lot about eating healthy, exercising 60 minutes a day and much more!” wrote a student from Littleton, Colorado.

Working in Schools and Communities, Constant Quality Improvement and Passion Equals Success

Several factors have contributed to the success of the Educational Theatre Program. First, we work closely with schools and communities to understand their unique cultures and needs. Second, we use continuous quality improvement techniques in program management. Third, actors are passionate about being educators and role models. Finally, we look at the “big picture,” employing Educational Theatre as part of multi-faceted strategy to improve population health. As with Educational Theatre, our Thriving Schools Program and Community Health Initiatives address a range of health and social issues and communities, including healthy eating and active living (HEAL), environmental sustainability and neighborhood safety.

 The Stage as a Classroom: How Kaiser Permanente Uses Educational Theatre to Bring Health Education to Life


Click on the graphic above to read about the Educational Theatre Program within Kaiser Permanente’s regions.