An innovative Web project is giving London school children a chance to forge links with their US counterparts and learn about theatre production via the Internet.
The Webplay project began last year with a pilot involving five classes in schools in London and Los Angeles. This year the project paired year-four (eight to nine-year-old) pupils from 17 classes in London and Reading schools with children in Los Angeles for 14 weeks.
Participants studied each other's cities and became "virtual assistant directors", working with the Wimbledon-based Polka Theatre for Children to learn about scriptwriting, production, administration and performance issues related to a play that was specially commissioned for the project. Having learned about theatre production, the pupils then write their own three-minute plays set in the cities they have learned about.
The project culminates in the Polka Theatre staging its play in schools on both sides of the Atlantic. The children's own plays are then digitally recorded and uploaded onto the Web site.
The Webplay site is located on Oracle's Think.com, a password-protected online education community site, which is provided to schools free of charge. Each pupil is given their own e-mail address and Web site, complete with tools to create articles, have conversations, and upload images and files. This enables them to learn about presentation as well as basic Web site building skills.
Jon Williams, who maintains the Webplay Web site, says the role played by Think.com was central to the success of the project. "It is very straightforward to use: you don't have to do anything, it is all done for you," he says.
"It is totally secure so it is safe for the pupils to post information and pictures of themselves onto the site. And you can achieve an awful lot with it without knowing a lot. That is the best thing about it - it empowers the children and they learn on it very quickly."
Williams says that because the Webplay site is "kid-friendly" it gets the pupils involved from day one. "They are all really enthusiastic," he says, adding that the feedback from the pupils, teachers and the Webplay team has been excellent.
"I have come away from the project believing in it massively," says Williams. "It is a very good and exciting resource for children to have."
The project has received support from the Southwark Education Business Alliance and the Merton Education Business Partnership. Next year the Webplay project will be expanded to include schools in New York.
This was first published in July 2002