How long should children sit? (UPDATED)

13 12 2010

I’ve been asked to do two 1.5hr presentations instead of my usual three or four 1hr presentations. The extra 30mins doesn’t sound like much on the page but I’m going to be interested to see what it means in real life for my audience.

I am working in a secondary school and the teacher seems to be concerned with filling in time rather than the educational validity of the process. I’m confident I can keep going for that length of time but how will the kids react?

At the science museum in London they aim to finish their shows within 20mins.  It has been reported to me that they think after 20mins no learning takes place… That doesn’t bode well for tomorrow! And it also doesn’t bode well for the vast majority of school lessons or university lectures either. I’ve never come across one that lasted less than 40mins. Perhaps the SM are thinking that their audience is likely to be smaller kids? But still, most blocks of time in a primary school are more than 20mins.

Most science shows that I perform are about 50mins and that allows for them to be programmed into a hour slot for festivals or squeezed into a 40min lesson. I have never asked an audience to sit for more than 1hr. I don’t think I’d like to have to sit for more than an hour as an audience member…

TV programmes tend to fit into 30min blocks. A typical soap will be half an hour and a drama might last one hour. Watching a BBC programme without a break for a whole hour can sometimes seem like quite a long period of time. It is easier on a commercial station. On a channel with adverts a programme that lasts an hour will typically have only 48mins of actual action once the ads have been inserted. US TV programmes such as Lost and Mad Men are typically only 42mins long. When shown on a commercial station they are given an hour slot and the rest of the time (18mins!) is taken up with adverts for products and upcoming shows. That makes watching them quite easy- you are getting lots of breaks. (Another way to get a grasp on this is to watch a BBC Planet Earth or Human Planet episode. At 48mins the action stops and we are treated to a “behind the scenes” feature for the next 10mins. Why? Well on commercial TV this time will be taken up by adverts and viewers there will only see the extras if they buy the DVD.)

When I go to a football match I sit for 45mins and then we get a 20min break before the next 45mins. I guess it is only at the cinema that you would typically sit for the length of time that I am proposing the children sit for tomorrow.

So what should I do? I could have a break in the middle of the show like the football or the TV people do. That would have the double bonus of reducing the time the kids have to listen for AND give them a break but is the teacher going to think that’s me copping out? The other thing to do would be to go S  L  O  W  L  Y and spread out what I would normally fit into an hour into the time slot. I’d be worried that this gets boring. I can imagine a lot of squirmy kids realising, or at least sensing, that something isn’t quite right. Or I could just keep the pace going and add extra material. If I do that I’m guessing the kids are going to be knackered.

UPDATE: It turned out the kids were “challenging” (teacher’s words not mine) and it took a long time to get them settled which used up 10mins or so of the extra time. In the end I used extra material as a carrot. I told them that I had one full show and if we got through that then a whole load of fun stuff to set fire to and explode. It worked out quite well as I could refer to the extra stuff that that were going to miss when they played up and slowed stuff down. I don’t think I’d like to do it again without writing a show designed to be that length. It felt too much of a compromise.

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