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Children are born to move. The process of achieving mobility drives them at first. Movement is further used to express thoughts and feelings, especially before words become plentiful. Primed to be in motion throughout their day, toddlers and preschoolers naturally learn by doing. The feeling of pure joy might be the only motivation needed for moving.
This natural state of motion makes early childhood an opportune time to use dance to enhance the young child’s insistent impulse to move. In Standards for Dance in Early Childhood, The National Dance Education Organization states, “Dance is a natural method for learning and a basic form of cultural expression. Children learn movement patterns as readily as they learn language.”
Despite the natural fit, creative dance has yet to find a consistent foothold in early childhood education programs. The National Dance Education Organization explains, “…while our educational systems for early childhood include drawing and singing, they often neglect to include dance.” Society at large, teachers, and parents are generally less familiar with dance than with other art forms. Opportunities to dance are usually found in private studios and are less often integrated into preschool and kindergarten programs.
To fill the gap, why not create a dance venue in your own home? It is the natural place to start. Whether you have a background in dance or not, guiding your young child’s motion is easier than you think. You don’t even have to call it “dance.”
Both parent and child have the opportunity to learn by exploring some basic dance and movement principles. Lead by example and flex your own creative muscle while moving beyond your comfort zone. Children are not the only ones who are designed to keep moving.
Start with rhyming games. Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake baker’s man, Bake me a cake as fast as you can… As you share the timeless nursery rhymes that have been passed down from generation to generation, notice how each one has a rhythm, often with prescribed movements, that engage your young child’s attention and imagination. The silly songs remind you to laugh with your little ones. Little did you know that rhyming songs build memory capacity and help form a foundation for future literacy. Most importantly, rhyming is fun with giggles and tickles galore.
Follow the leader. Lead your child through the kitchen, around the sofa, and through the hallway. Walk, tip toe, slither, and slide your way through the house. Sing a little song or click and clack two spoons together to create sound effects that you make up to go with the traveling steps.
Copycat. Copy facial expressions first and expand from there. The possibilities are endless especially since young children learn primarily by imitation. As parents explore their own expressive capabilities, young children receive implicit permission to give full expressions of their own.
Get a rhythm. Provide rhythms for your child to copy. Soon you will be the one who is trying to keep up with your child’s convoluted manifesto. Then, bring it back down to simpler, countable rhythms. Rhythm sticks are inexpensive and may be available at your local toy store. Music books are plentiful to refresh and inform your own sense of rhythm.
Make shapes. Move to recorded music or beat a rhythm until it is time to “freeze” and make a shape. Notice something about the shapes after the fact. Strong, soft, tall, wide, curved, sharp angles are all qualities that help define shapes. Your child may have a definite idea of “Who am I” when he stops to make a shape.
Move like an animal. How does a cat move? What about a cougar? Your kids are playing like this already. Now is your chance to join in the fun.
Follow the image in the mirror. Is your child at a developmental stage where he or she can follow your movement as if following a mirror image? This takes concentration. You are creating an opportunity for your child to develop observational skills and expand peripheral vision at the same time.
Tell a story. Dances can tell stories. Without words, how would you dance the tale of Little Red Riding Hood? Your child can dance while you tell or read the story.
As your children grow, your dances together will evolve. Movement and dance opportunities could become part of your child’s educational program. A search in your community will likely reveal a variety of dance disciplines and performance opportunities to choose from. Some children may actively follow the impulse to pursue dance study as an expressive vehicle and as an art form.
All children can benefit from an early foundation in dance as a basis for preparing both body and mind for learning. In How the Arts Develop the Young Brain, consultant in educational neuroscience, David A. Sousa explains, “During the brain’s early years, neural connections are being made at a rapid rate. Much of what young children do as play – singing, drawing, dancing – are natural forms of art. These activities engage all the senses and wire the brain for successful learning.”
A key to cultivating the freedom to move and for sharing memorable experiences with your children is to employ dance as an active force in your home. Some of the best dances happen in the kitchen. Music has the power to bring family members together and dancing has a way of making all the chores that much lighter. Pass out the dishtowels, put on your apron, turn up the music, and give us your best moves.
By Diane Turner Maller, a freelance writer who holds an MS in Dance from the University of Oregon. She has pursued her love of dance through performance, teaching, and an enduring enjoyment of social dancing with family and friends.