Backroom Dragon Theater: The Movieplex Comes Home

Ginger Carlson
April 26, 2016

It began just after my son's fourth birthday. His best young friend was over for a playdate. As soon as she walked in the door, they both conferred and then chimed, "Can we watch a movie?" I was disappointed that was what they wanted to do together. I wanted them to talk and laugh and create together. I wanted them to make up stories, use all of their senses, and engage in that realm of true creative play they so often entered together. They savored their moments together and would usually play hard so I was surprised that this was their choice of activity. And truth be told, my skin crawled at the idea of our play date turning into a sit-and-watch date.

But there is surely something magical about the movies. I knew it. They knew it. And so I reluctantly said okay, you can watch a movie.  And true to that magic, the movies came home. Indeed.

That special night, they did watch a movie, but just as I had come to expect from these two, first a creative, wonder-filled venture occurred.  Under the dining table they huddled.  They built a ticket counter out of blocks, overturned stools, and paper.  Signs were erected in their four year old handwriting and spelling that they told us said "Backroom Dragon Theater." An old wallpaper sample book was cut up into literally hundreds of little tickets. Some thirty-odd stuffed animals lined up and purchased them with marble money, then proceeded to the snack bar (the underside of our kitchen island) where they bought little origami paper cones filled with popcorn seasoned just so. Three hours and a multitude of creating later, a short 23-minute Magic School Bus video did run.  

When children play "house," "restaurant," or in this case "movie theater," it is called a simulation. They are simulating what they see and experience in the real world. It is a vital learning tool, for both their understanding of the world and their imaginations. It is through the process of simulating that children activate their background knowledge and build upon their prior experiences, which are all an important ingredient in the development of their personal expression and development.  

Generally, I am not a fan of movie-going for young children. Even many G-rated films are filled with intense imagery that don't seem to have our youngest viewers in mind. That said, with its many varied and rich examples, the art of the motion picture does in fact offer children an opportunity to develop creatively and intellectually. And creating a movie theatre-like experience at home may be just the ticket to finding that balance we strive for.

So what do you need for your own movie theater simulation? Not a whole lot:

A kiosk and tickets, which can be as simple as an overturned chair or a doorway.

A snack bar. Think lemonade stand simple, the kitchen counter, or a wagon with a cooler atop.

Seating. Children usually love this part, setting up rows of pillows or chairs and making it feel like a real theater. Perhaps they will even add some simple touches.  Lighting on the floor anyone?

An audience. You can guide your children in creating a small, intimate setting with just your family or a few friends, or get more ambitious with a backyard neighborhood showing.  

A movie. This is a great opportunity to introduce films lesser seen by the wee crowd. Documentaries such as Winged Migration or March of the Penguins or other short art or nature films are fantastic in this setting. Try showing an old Buster Keaton film or peck through your library's silent film archive. Even just a small portion of one of these choices would make great lineups.

Today, as I type this, almost five years after the first appearance of Backroom Dragon Theater, I can hear them hard at play. How ‘bout you are the ticket taker and I am the bear, she says. Oh yeah, and you come in with the werewolf and you can't agree on what to watch, he adds to the scene. Their signs have gotten more sophisticated over the years. Their spelling has become more conventional. But business seems to be booming for them (their little Movieplex even turned in taxes this year!) and with each showing, just like the popcorn, their understanding of the world and imaginations burst!

Originally published in 2009. 

From the Parents

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