The Baylor Children's Theater
The roots of Learning About Learning began in the Baylor Children’s Theater. Kathryn (Kitty) Baker and Lenora Schulz launched the program in 1941 as a Saturday morning playgroup for children ages 3-10. They focused on fostering creativity in young children with crafts, music, and impromptu acting. In 1947, two senior drama students at Baylor—Irene Lockridge and Jeanne McRae—cast their production of The Blue Bird from the playgroup, leading to the formal creation of the Baylor Children’s Theater.
A key part of the approach of the Baylor Children's Theater was to use the same standards of theater for children as were used for adults. The program would use age-appropriate materials for children, rather than the leftovers of adult productions.
In 1952, Baylor Drama department faculty member Mary Sue Jones became the director of the Baylor Children’s Theater. She developed a curriculum involving different forms of theater from throughout history. Ruth Byers, who took on the directorship after Jones, later expanded upon this approach. Following Paul Baker's philosophy of the “Integration of Abilities,” the program began by introducing students to the elements of art such as line, shape, color, sound, and space, and then built upon them through physical experimentation with each concept as well as their combination and interrelation. The class simultaneously progressed through different periods of human history. In the words of Byers, the program was “comparing the history of art to the growth of a child.”
While the program had a great focus on theater, the curriculum was expansive. Teachers used field trips to place children in the eras they studied, such as recreating the experience of a Greek amphitheater by visiting a football stadium. They would work with numerous different craft materials and art projects such as mosaics or costume masks. The faculty prioritized having the students learn to work with their hands and learn to use their bodies and voices to express and communicate their ideas.
In 1959, Jones and Byers transitioned to the newly opened Dallas Theater Center. Jearnine Wagner, Baylor Graduate and the eventual founder of Learning About Learning, would step into the role of Director of the Children’s Theater. Wagner, originally from Houston, Texas, completed her undergraduate in 1955 and would complete her masters in 1963 with her dissertation A Departure Point for Establishing a Children's Theater Curriculum.
Also in 1963, Wagner followed Drama Department head Paul Baker to Trinity University, becoming a faculty member there. During her time at Trinity, Wagner would create Ideas in Motion, a program similar to the Baylor Children's Theater.
In her theater classes, Wagner implemented various experiential learning techniques such as reflection to engage her students with the material. Wagner wanted students to have full creative control in their theater productions in order to develop their creativity, problem-solving, and teamwork skills. Instead of performing a traditionally published play, Wagner encouraged students to create their own original productions. These plays included original plots, characters, and settings, costumes, and props. Students started by brainstorming in groups and Wagner guided them as they gradually refined their ideas. Students then wrote and edited the screenplays and created the physical theater props. Examples of original student plays include “The Tin Can Man and The Painted Town” and “The Purple Tiger Who Likes Pancakes.” This allowed the students to feel more personally invested in the theater process and gain confidence in their abilities.
Ruth Byer highlighted this technique in her 1968 book, Creating Theater, which included Wagner’s work as examples. Creating Theater shared the idea that students should create, write, and design original works of theater, and idea that Wagner believed would shift the relationship between student and teacher. By extending creative control of the plays to the students, the teacher became a guide rather than a director. Wagner believed that original theater “requires a discussion leader, not a lecturer,” and her teaching model fostered an encouraging and experiential environment in which students felt valued and supported.