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What Are You Wondering About?

TOY's production of Inside Out opens on November 5.

TOY Tackles Child Obesity

Is there anything that you are wondering about?” asks Meg Quinn, artistic director of Theatre of Youth (TOY). That’s how she begins the question-and-answer session that follows every performance of Buffalo’s venerable 39-year-old children’s theater company.

“I never start by saying, ‘Are there any questions?’” explains Quinn. “That puts too much pressure on children, because then there is anxiety about forming a proper question, and ‘good questions’ and ‘bad questions,’ and making a mistake, when all the child really wants to do is find out more, or make a comment about the play, or to connect with us.”

Quinn is endlessly fascinated by the infinite inquisitiveness of children, or what she calls the “urgent learning” of childhood. For 39 years, Theatre of Youth has tapped into that urgent sense of inquiry and imagination.

The company is celebrated for its “Classic Series” of plays. These are mostly adaptations of books—often books that are in school curricula. This season, young audiences can see A Little House Christmas, based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s popular series of books; Number the Stars, adapted from the Newbery Award-winning book by Lois Lowry; Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, adapted from the popular book by beloved children’s book author, Judy Blume; and How I Became a Pirate, based on the book by Melinda Long.

In recent years, however, Theater of Youth has been able to combine that limitless inquisitiveness and the magic of theater to educate children about pressing life choices in the area of health and wellness. Their current production, for instance, Inside Out, written by Quinn herself, explores the issue of childhood obesity.

“A few years ago,” Quinn recalls, “we collaborated with the Research Center for Stroke and Heart Disease of the Jacobs Neurological Institute to develop a play that taught children the warning signs of stroke. After the children saw the play and learned the warning signs, they were supposed to teach them to four adults. The center tracked the children to see if they remembered what they had learned and the results were astounding.”

Ten thousand children learned the warning signs of stroke, remembered them, and shared them with the adults in their lives.

“Lives were saved,” says Quinn.

Indeed, the impact of the play resonated far and wide. The latest one that Quinn knows about happened in Florida just a few months ago.

“A man in his 40s, whose kids had been taught the warning signs of stroke by a cousin in Buffalo, was having a stroke, recognized what was happening, and got the help he needed.”

The success of this project got Quinn thinking. In what other ways could TOY connect with the lives of children and their families? This thinking led her toward their current production, Inside Out, exploring childhood overweight and obesity.

Childhood overweight and obesity are reaching epidemic proportions across the country, but it is especially prevalent in Western New York. (In February 2009, one local school district reported that 47 percent of students who were measured were overweight or obese on the Body Mass Index scale. The national statistic is around 30 percent.) In addition to being one of the major factors leading to increased rates of stroke and heart disease in our community, children who are overweight or obese are developing diseases normally seen only in adults, such as type II diabetes and high blood pressure.

TOY connected with Independent Health, the John R. Oshei Foundation, the General Mills Foundation’s Champions for Healthy Kids Program, the John R. Cummings Foundation, and New York State Department of Health’s Healthy Heart Programs to pilot the project which culminated with a production of Inside Out. The Research Center for Stroke and Heart Disease of the Jacobs Neurological Institute developed a health curriculum for school and home to accompany the production.

This year, the production is supported by Independent Health, the John R. Oshei Foundation, the Robert J. and Martha B. Fierle Foundation, and Kaleida Health.

In the play, a boy named Tom is accidentally involved in a clandestine government operation, and becomes trapped in the body of another kid. Here, he meets the team of workers who exist inside that body and who are responsible for managing the food choices the child makes. An emotional and often comical learning experience follows, as Tom sees what happens to the body when the child ingests sugared beverages and fatty or salty junk foods, as well as the terrible effects of skipping breakfast and of too little exercise. He hides out as long as possible, before he finally makes his escape and thinks of a way to save other kids from such mistakes.

Kenneth Shaw designed the show; Michael Walline devised the choreography, including an aerobic exercise that the children learn; and Chester Popiolkowski designed the sound.

Data from the pilot project was impressive. Seventy percent of the student participants increased the number of mornings on which they ate a healthy breakfast. There was a 23 percent increase in the number of parents reporting that they do physical activity together as a family. Because of the Inside Out program, the number of students getting the recommended amount of moderate intensity physical activity every day increased by 20 percent from about half to over 70 percent six months later. Forty percent of students reported that they had reduced their daily consumption of such junk foods as cookies, candy, potato chips, French fries, and pizza. Parents reported a 20 percent increase in reviewing the “Nutrition Facts” labels on food and drinks products before purchasing them.

The responses of teachers were also sensational, with nearly unanimous agreement that the program is effective in teaching children about the importance of good nutrition and exercise.

In addition to the educational value, of course, is the fun of the theatrical experience.

“Four hundred kids a day have been seeing this play,” says Quinn. “And when you stand in the theater, you can hear a pin drop. Three thousand fourth- and fifth-graders from the Buffalo Public Schools will see the play and learn to exercise with us.”

Apart from the specific health and wellness issues addressed in Inside Out, Quinn stresses that theater specifically devised for children is very important.

“Children deserve a voice, and we try to provide that through the stories that we tell,” she says. “When I read a critic who comments that the something about our productions is not appealing to adults, my response is, ‘Well, it’s not for adults.’ Frankly, a seven-year-old doesn’t really care about Willy Loman’s problems. Children are not miniature adults. They are not a lesser audience. They are an important audience to whom we should not condescend and who should not be ignored. At TOY, we talk to children about the challenges and fears and wonders of being a child.