Babies rock side-to-side.
Toddlers wiggle, wobble, reach and grab.
Young children jump and swing their arms in the air.
Dance is innate in children. Their brains and bodies seek opportunities for active learning. Young children learn primarily through movement and sensory exploration (Piaget, 1964). However, because the movement of young children is seen as a natural part of their everyday lives, it is seldom intentionally integrated into curriculum planning (Davies, 2003). Research has validated that classroom-based physical activity programs, such as dance, are effective for increasing fitness as well as improving on-task behavior throughout the entire day (Werner, Timms, & Almond, 1999).
The current National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPSE, 2004) recommends that young children accumulate a minimum of 30 minutes of planned physical activity daily. However, the challenge of time and resources remains a heavy burden on early childhood educators who teach in an era where the emphasis is on educational accountability for academic performance and school readiness. To meet the state-mandated learning outcomes, children are sitting more and moving less. Preschool dance however offers a creative and joyful solution. It nurtures the whole child and uniquely supports growth across all domains of learning.
Are There Benefits to Dance in Early Childhood Programs?
Yes! Dance supports language and cognitive development. Young children learn through physical and sensory experiences. Several studies postulate that early motor behavior supports growth in social-emotional and cognitive development that carries through beyond preschool years (Winjrosks & vanVeldhoven, 2003; Burns, O’Callaghan, McDonell, & Rogers, 2004; Murray, Veijola, Moilanen, Miettunen, Glahn, Cannon, Jones, & Isohani, 2006; Piek, Dawson, Smith, & Gasson, 2008). Moreover a correlation exists between music and dance abilities and emerging language skills in children (Anvari, Trainor, Woodside, & Levy, 2002; Peynircioglu, Durgunoglu, & Oney-Kusefoglu, 2002).
Dance is accessible to all children. It accommodates diverse learners by inviting young children to experience concepts through the expression of their preferred learning modalities: visual, kinesthetic, auditory and tactile. Most children learn best when they are given the opportunity to use a combination of or all learning modalities together (Pica, 1995). Dance embraces individual preferences as well as invites diverse cultural expression. Maria West, early childhood specialist and contributing author to the preschool Dance ‘n Beats curriculum explains: “Learning is integrative. Traditional educational settings tend to treat the three domains of learning – physical, cognitive and social-emotional – as separate entities; however the domains are intrinsically interwoven such that facilitation of one enhances the others. Dance is a unique vehicle for inviting children to use their full bodies, hearts and minds to experience learning in ways that highlight the interplay between domains.”
Dance builds confidence. Physical strength enables children to move and act independently, which supports the development of social-emotional skills (Puckett, Black & Mariority, 2007). The creative and expressive nature of dance offers children an outlet for safely experimenting with a range of emotions. A study done on the effects of a dance and movement program on Head Start preschoolers revealed that the increased focus and concentration skills that are cultivated in the context of dance may be transferred to other areas of social and academic competence (Lobo & Winsler, 2006). Dancing in groups increases the awareness of and respect for others and for personal and social space. In addition, structured physical activities, such as dance activities, reduce anxiety and depression and give children a healthy outlet for managing stress.
How Can I Balance Creative Movement with Dance Techniques?
Although many early childhood educators incorporate and are aware of the benefits of creative movement and free-play programs, research now reveals that in order to develop fundamental motor skills, an appropriately structured program is a more effective approach (Ghaly, 2010). Studies suggest that young children learn more through developmentally appropriate instruction than through random physical activity (Stork & Sanders, 2008). Movement patterns that include these fundamental motor skills (throwing, catching, hopping, skipping, bending, twisting) do not simply develop as a result of age. These patterns require both cognitive and physical effort and are developed as a result of practice, encouragement and instruction (Stork & Sanders, 2008; Ghaly, 2010). Dance ‘n Beats reinforces 21 key movements that educators can reinforce throughout the day in storytelling, dramatic play and when dancing to music. By naming the 21 movements, children learn a vocabulary that can be used to express their understanding of movement and help them make better sense of their emerging muscle control. A dance and movement program needs to have substance. Dance “cannot exist in a void and it cannot exist without language” (Davies, 2003, p. 161). Children need to be familiar with a wide range of movement vocabulary before learning and creativity can flourish. If not, “children will be seen to produce the same movements and movement patterns time and time again” (Davies, 2003, p. 161). Using a structured vocabulary brings consciousness to the movement experiences so that children can communicate and understand their learning with intention and self-reflection (Davis, 1995).
“Children move naturally. They move to achieve mobility, they move to express a thought or feeling and they move because it is joyful and feels wonderful. When their movement becomes consciously structured and is performed with awareness for its own sake, it becomes dance” (National Dance Education Organization, 2013, para. 2). Stork and Sanders (2008) state, “Planning and careful organization of physical activities maximize the opportunities for children to learn a wider variety of physical skills than might be developed during play alone. The combination of structure and play results in a unique curriculum” (p. 205). A regularly implemented dance and movement program is proven to be effective in supporting the growth of fundamental motor and cognitive skills, and these skills are linked to academic performance (Bobbio et al., 2009).
Movement-based strategies that encourage a child’s self-improvement, creative freedom and cooperation have the greatest positive impact on increasing a child’s physical and social well being (Rudisill & Wall, 2004). “Young children need specific and systematic opportunities to learn fundamental skills that will contribute to a lifetime of physical activity. It cannot be left to chance” (Stork & Sanders, 2008, p. 197). Dance builds fitness, friendships and offers a safe way to express feelings. It nurtures critical thinking across all domains of learning.
Dance requires no large or expensive equipment; it crosses cultural boundaries and differentiates for diverse learning styles, abilities and ages. Whether it is a sunny or rainy day, don’t forget to dance.
4 Easy Ways to Integrate Dance Into Any Program
• Invite children to dance their feelings. Play a song and encourage children to dance with happy, sad, angry or scared emotions. Discuss how the body communicates our feelings.
• Use masking tape or chalk and create a small circle on the floor for every pair of children. Invite a child and his friend to stand in the circle and dance together without stepping out of the circle. This dance game requires cooperation and responding to one other as well as spatial awareness.
• Choose a part of the body to freeze. Play a song and dance as desired but don’t move that one part of the body. Play the song again and only move the previously frozen body part.
• Support kinesthetic memory by demonstrating two movements (use the 21 Dance ‘n Beats movements). Play a song and dance the same two movements throughout the entire song. Together, create a name for the combination of 2 movements, for example, “The Monkey” is jumping and swinging arms. Throughout the day, invite children to do “The Monkey” as they go from the rug to the table.
• Tell a nonverbal story with your dance. Listen to a song with or without lyrics and invite children to act out what they hear happening in the story.
• Dance around letters. Write letters on pieces of paper and then spread the papers out on the floor. Dance freely then call out a letter. Children run to that letter and dance around that letter until you call, “Free Dance!” Dance freely again until you or another child calls out a letter name.
• Explore dance patterns by choosing 3 movements and dance them throughout the entire song. Pattern dancing increases in sophistication when children begin to hear the repeated chorus of a song and understand that the movement pattern sequence is different for the chorus than for the verse.
• Experiment with spatial awareness by inviting children to extend their arms and dance freely around the room without touching another child.
About the Author
Leslie Falconer is the CEO of Experience Early Learning Co., publisher of arts-infused early childhood resources including the Dance ‘n Beats curriculum and Mother Goose Time comprehensive preschool curriculum. Mother Goose Time specializes in the development of research-based curriculum, books, music, dance and authentic assessment tools servicing child care providers, teachers and parents of young children since 1984. Mother Goose Time preschool curriculum supports a child’s social-emotional, physical and cognitive development. Falconer has written, produced and published multiple music CDs, children’s books and child development tools. She is also the trustee of the Alabaster Fund which supports early childhood education initiatives worldwide.
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