RIP Dorothy Heathcote MBE

Dorothy Heathcote was a giant in the development of classroom drama, and in my previous career I was lucky enough to use her ideas often and work with her occasionally. She passed away on Saturday 8th October. I have found her ideas transferable to so many other contexts, and just about everything I do owes a big debt to her.

Dorothy Heathcote

Here is a brief handful of her inspirations:

Dorothy’s work stemmed from observing the rules children use when playing freely. This is the heart of all inclusion work – learning and using the cultural reference points your audience already has, rather than imposing your own. Our summer exhibitions strongly rely on this approach, closely observing how the space is used, then finding ways of deepening the ways children chose to play.

Trusting to the drama. This boils down to trusting the children. Dorothy would often let children explore a theme they wanted, but made sure they did it ‘her way’, so Batman became an exploration of how children could grow up to be heroes. She advocated lessons being planned like a military operation, but all that work is happily thrown out of the window when the children think up something better.

So often, children’s play, whether it is set in ancient Greece or deep space, turns out to be a metaphor for issues that they are facing here and now. Our summer exhibition has developed a more and more open structure over the years, so that the children are free to re-interpret the space and the materials in it however they wish. This means they are free to play their games, not ours, and to consciously or unconsciously explore whatever they choose.

Profligacy / parsimony. Like many of Dorothy’s concepts, the language sounds daunting, but the core of the idea makes complete simple sense. When people work together, there is a natural rhythm alternating between “profligacy” – creating lots of ideas, widening the field, then “parsimony” – filtering the range of ideas to find the best ones. This repeats, so the best ideas are developed into many possibilities, which are refined again and so on. One really important lesson from this is to end any session with the parsimonious stage – if you are in a meeting and have agreed a small number of outcomes, you can pick up from there and continue later. If, however, you stop with dozens of ideas in the air, when you re-convene, everybody will have mentally distilled their own choice of those points and the process either needs restarting or becomes competitive.

“Signing”: the art of communicating things indirectly is an important skill for a friendly exhibition. We welcome so many visitors who have never been to museums, or not to museums like this one, and we don’t want to face them with a book of rules, so the careful placing of things to sign the rules that operate is a critical design consideration. Along with signs and signifiers, Dorothy also talked about lures, gems which spark the curiosity and draw the children in. Like so many of her concepts, creating ‘lures’ is obvious common sense, but by naming and pointing these things out she enabled us to analyse our craft, share knowledge and improve.

There are a thousand more and above that a humane and no-nonsense sensibility. Her work lives on in the thousands she’s inspired.

For more about Dorothy Heathcote, visit


Posted on 18/10/2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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