(Photo Credit: Thinkstock)

(Photo Credit: Thinkstock)

This article is presented in partnership with CA Lottery.

Kids live in a world where bullying is the norm and self-esteem is determined by the size of your waistline or driveway. Parents and teachers can see the effects of these emotional assaults etched into young faces and splayed across test scores and report cards.

School can be a battleground, but for kids in San Diego, it doesn’t have to be.

An extracurricular program, based on the concept that self-expression and conflict resolution are best explored while having fun, is succeeding where other programs have failed.

Using Fun as a Transformative Tool

Designed to fit into the school day or afterwards, LifePlay Productions runs programs geared toward fostering creativity in young people, while supporting their exploration of self-growth, understanding and empathy for others. ”What we do is provide social and emotional development opportunities through play-based programs. We gently move children from the level of fun and play toward learning and growth opportunities, via questioning,” explains Ashley McGuire ZeMans, LifePlay’s Executive Director.

McGuire ZeMans, whose background is in theater, has helped to design programs built around social and emotional themes, such as empathy, integrity or courage. Children are asked questions about the theme and its meaning to them, within a play-based forum such as CircusPlay, ArtPlay and NaturePlay. A key element to all of the programs is conflict resolution.

Teaching Kids Skills Most Adults Don’t Know

The program’s lead teachers are all therapists and child psychologists well-skilled in working with both bullies and the bullied. They guide the kids through Bullying Prevention Workshops, which can be mixed gender or gender specific, based on the needs of the school. “We teach them how to stay calm with breathing techniques but also work hard to help kids understand the nature of who a bully is. We have a strong focus on empathy and kindness. We show kids how to be kind to someone who is being aggressive by teaching that people are not naturally mean, but are hurting and need help. When kids are able to shift their minds toward this concept, understanding that this person is attacking them because they need kindness, it changes everything,” explains McGuire ZeMans.

Another powerful element employed LifePlay’s lead teachers is an acting tool McGuire ZeMans calls “Yes, and…”

“In improvisational theater, actors are taught to repeat whatever is said to them by another actor in a scene plus say the word yes and build on it. So for kids who are being bullied, that might translate into saying, ‘Yes I’m missing an arm and I’m learning how to do everything kids with two arms can do,’ or ‘Yes I’m bad at baseball, but I kill it at debate club.’ That takes the power away from the aggressor. They have nothing to fight against,” says McGuire ZeMans.

Girl Power

LifePlay also offers Girl Empowerment Workshops which are appropriate for all age groups. Through play and questioning, the program gets girls to the point where they begin to look at their own assumptions and become self-aware about how they communicate with other girls and with themselves. They explore concepts such as how culture and media feed into negative self and body image and think about how they can become critical consumers.

Feelings, emotions and taught empathy can all be super powers for these girls. They are supported to think about lifting other girls up and making a difference in society and are also taught to identify relational aggression, like spreading rumors and being manipulative, in themselves and in others. Moms are also invited to watch the workshops.

LifePlay is brought into the San Diego public school system through a variety of grants and funding sources as well as through some PTA’s. The program is currently in three title one schools and is expected to be available in most of San Diego’s title one schools by the 2015-16 school year.

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.