Dance Play Is Serious Business: Young Minds Require Freedom

By Nancy Ng

January 1, 2020, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Group of children in a close circle on a studio floor

Photo courtesy of artist

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children” -Nelson Mandela

Recently, a colleague shared his frustration about the entire hour of homework his first-grade child was expected to complete after an eight-hour school day. He called it, “an assault on kids.” His passionate comment reminded me of how I felt the first time I witnessed elementary school children passing through the hallways with their hands crossed behind their backs replicating the “perp” walk of prisoners. The school-to-prison pipeline was visual and visceral. Last year, I learned that the highest suspension rate per capital is for African-American preschool boys. Preschoolers! I have spent my entire career teaching and learning how to foster children’s happiness and wellbeing—from my first job as a preschool teacher to my current role as Director of Early Childhood Education (ECE) at Luna, the rights of children to be free has been a core tenet of my work.

It saddens me to witness an educational system that treats children as chattel destined to be molded and formed to serve the industrial complex; instead of respecting and nurturing them as vibrant human beings who are naturally eager to love and learn. I am humbled by the power of young children dancing. Their organic in-the-moment quality of movement is something we professional dancers yearn for and try to create in our choreography and performance. With bodies not yet colonized, young children’s dances are truly original just by being true to their nature.

Increasingly, more dance teaching artists are becoming interested in working with young children 0-5. How can I, as a teacher educator, help them to create learning experiences that nurture and activate children’s innate creativity. How can dance support healthy attachment and autonomy? What dance curricula supports the whole child—cognitively, psycho-socially, and physically? What are kids’ natural interests? How can dance teachers reframe success to be about exploring children’s wonder rather than expecting them to follow? How can dance educators articulate what we know to early educators, parents, and policy-makers outside of the arts education sector so they understand how dance meets early education goals? At Luna, early education threads through all of our programs through a framework we call Love, Play, Move (an ECE teaching guide with the same title will be published in 2020).

Relationships are at the core of all learning. As human beings we are hard-wired to bond with a primary caregiver. All babies are cute and adorable for a reason. Adults want to take care of them—even when they cry. The security, safety and nurturing experienced in the cocooned in-utero environment is manifested out-of-utero as infants are swaddled, held, rocked, fed, and talked to. An infant recognizes voices outside of the womb because they have heard the voices of their family members for nine months prior. Within the first few hours of an infant’s breath they mimic the facial expressions of the adult holding them. A loving parent gazes into their child’s face sticking their tongue out and their baby mimics this movement. Already, parent and child are playing with each other. Babies learn to smile because loving adults smile at them often.

Relationship-based dance curriculum expands on early natural movement learning in a multitude of creative ways. In the ECE classroom or studio space, classes focus on the elements of dance that are central to family connection. Families move toward and away from each other, shadow each other’s movements, make body shapes that attach and detach, travel in connected shapes, create secret movement handshakes, discover dances that relate over, under, around and through. These explorations in ECE dance are familiar to choreographers who investigate the intricacies of relationships using space, props, and gestural movement. As children become preschool aged (3-5), they are able to apply this relationship-play in the dancing with their peers.

Young children learn through play, and improvisation is at the core of play. Dance improvisation shares so many attributes of play—spontaneity, imagination, connections in the moment, communication with another person. As dance educators we need to mindfully craft dance activities that are play-based; and we need to be able to articulate what we see in dance play to parents and classroom teachers so they can also see its value to the cognitive and socio-emotional growth of the whole child.

When my daughter was four, we made up a movement game during long walks to pass the time and make the journey to our destination seem less tedious. Walking 8 blocks does not seem like much as an adult, but it is as great distance to a young child with legs only 18 inches long. Determined by what felt right in the moment we alternated leading different locomotor movements, finding ways to go over or around objects on the sidewalk, making shapes with fire hydrants or shrubbery. Our sidewalk dances were spontaneous—sometimes I shadowed my daughter, sometimes she shadowed me. She learned so much in these dances: physics – how to run and decrease her momentum at the sidewalk’s edge and use weight to push off a hydrant; empathy – how to embody my movements in the moment and feel what it’s like to be me; patterning used in math and language – as we created movement sequences that repeated (ie. gallop, stop, gallop, stop).

A favorite dance game at Luna is rivers and stones adapted from Anne Green Gilbert’s “Rocks and Bridges” activity in Creative Dance For All Ages[i]. The stones make rock-like shapes that can be jagged, round, or even have holes in them. The river flows/dances over, around, and through the rocks. Sometimes the river is still and may settle next to a rock and sway, other times it might move fast and furious. In this one dance children learn to speed up and slow down, curve and mold their body to another person’s shape, stop and go, and explore weight while resting on a rock.

The moving body is how we experience our world, and how we know our world. Anthropologists have made the case for dance as the first art form, and movement as the first form of communication. Dance/movement is fundamental to literacy, health, and wellness as a core component of a holistic approach to support young children’s self-efficacy, self-awareness, and autonomy. There is plenty of neuro-science research to validate what we already know as dancers. For example, we know that children develop body-brain connectivity in their natural movement explorations during the first two years of life.

Many dance educators use the developmental patterns, present in all dance styles and forms – breath, core-distal, head-tail, upper-lower, body-side, cross-lateral during a class. Breath: internal pulse needed to bring oxygen to our body; Core-Distal: extension from our core through our limbs, head and tailbone; Head-Tail: spinal movement; Upper-Lower: grounding to the floor with our lower body and reaching to the sky with our upper body; Body-Side: division of body movements along the vertical axis; Cross Lateral: movements which cross the body’s midline. Our bodies are designed to move in these patterns; and moving through these patterns are a necessary part of brain development in young children. What better case can be made for dance than that?

As dance educators it is imperative that we convey what we know about dance and early learning to parents, teachers, early education leaders and policy-makers. Children come into the world ready to learn through love, play, and movement. The benefits of early dance and movement begin in utero, continue in relation to a primary care giver, expand in social play with peers, and actualize children’s individuation and expression in small group movement activities. This parallels the goals of California’s early education initiatives which are focused on the whole child in relationship to family and then community.

When young children are dancing, they are completely embodied in the moment expressing who they are – they are free. This is what is needed in our schools, in our society. We know children should be moving for the entire day in pre-school, and first graders should be dancing after-school instead of sitting and doing homework. We know dance is fundamental for embodied learning; and we are in a unique position to support children’s creativity, freedom and authentic expression.  With a new state governor committed to early education, we are at a pivotal moment to truly create change as dancers and activists who care about young people and their well-being.

[i] Green Gilbert, Anne. Creative Dance For All Ages, 95. Reston, VA: The American Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 1992.

This article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of In Dance.

Nancy Ng is Executive Director of Creativity and Policy and Dir. of Early Education at Luna Dance Institute. She continues to learn from young children. Luna faculty members have written other articles for this journal which delve into early education and dance. You can read Exploring Power and Agency in Early Childhood (Nakagawa, A. Dec. 2018), and The First Steps: Luna Dance Institute (Reedy, P. May 2012)