“Where Preschoolers Can Dance!” seeks the optimal place to introduce creative dance to preschoolers. It considers creative dance taught from a brain-based education perspective developed by Anne Green Gilbert. Early learning and care programs continually seek to provide the best environment possible to support healthy human development. A marriage between creative dance and early childhood education spaces lifts the efficacy of both practices to achieve higher levels of credibility.
Where Preschoolers Can Dance!
Dance in Our Lives
Where do young children encounter dance? At home, with family in their living rooms? Playfully moving with adults at a wedding or family celebration? Participating in classes at a dance studio or in a recreation centre program? Partaking in an ethnic dance practice, supported by family and their distinct culture?
Dance opens one of many doors to self-discovery. As humans we move our bodies and experience a kinesthetic sensation followed by an instantaneous connection to how the experience makes us feel. Our range of emotional awareness expands. Another form of self-expression is added to our tool kit simply by increasing physical awareness and vocabulary. Unfortunately, children may not be exposed to dance in their preschool years even though it is directly related to healthy human development as interpreted by Lobo and Winsler:
Dance is thought to foster healthy development in a wide variety of domains, including self-image, self-body awareness and self-esteem (Hanna , 1988; Joyce, 1994; Karff, 1969; Stinson, 1998), coping with emotional and cognitive challenges (Gilbert, 1992), concentration and focus (Stinson, 1998), tolerance and respect for diverse others (Gilbert, 1992; Stinson, 1998), emotional expression and understanding (Fleming, 1976; Karff, 1969), tension relief and emotional release (Karff, 1969), self-control (Stinson, 1998), problem solving, decision making, taking responsibility, making adjustments and adaptations and testing alternatives (Bloch,1977; Fleming, 1976). (qtd. in Yovanka B. Lobo and Adam Winsler 503)
Movement is critical to human brain development. According to Anne Green Gilbert, creative dance is a sensory-motor activity that stimulates brain cells or is “brain-compatible” (11-14). Facilitating brain-compatible dance classes for three to five year-old children presents an opportunity to increase the number of neural connections between synapses by stimulating brain cells and causing a greater amount of dendrites to branch out. Brain development and several components of social competence are directly enhanced by engaging in dance activity.
So, Where Can the Preschooler Dance?
Early childhood environments led by trained educators are designed to facilitate the growth of fully functioning humans by responding to the needs of children according to what is developmentally appropriate. For 3-5 year olds this represents a critical time; their brains receive and process information more quickly and productively than any other time in development and their acquisition of social skills is at a peak. Could the preschool or daycare be the ideal place for three to five year olds to dance? When creative dance classes are presented in early childhood learning and care settings they are better suited to supporting healthy human and brain development. Parallels between the goals of facilitated early childhood environments and creative dance become stronger upon consideration of Lobo and Winsler’s definition of creative dance:
Creative dance is defined as the interpretation of a child’s ideas, feelings and sensory impressions expressed symbolically in movement forms through unique uses of his/her body (Dimondstein, 1971). Creative dance/movement celebrates spontaneity, originality and individuality through structured movement opportunities in which the dancer continuously invents movements according to personal preferences (Joyce, 1994). It is a method of learning about one’s own personal strengths and weaknesses, and a means to explore new physical, social and emotional territories. Dance encourages innovation and honors individual experience and resources at whatever stage they arrive (Joyce, 1994). (qtd. in Yovanka B. Lobo and Adam Winsler 503)
How the Brain Works
A basic understanding of how the brain is organized and functions has been described by the Triune Brain concept (Burrill 220). Perceiving, feeling and thinking are developed in episodes according to the Triune concept. The three systems of the brain concerned with ways of processing experience are the reptilian brain, limbic brain and neo-cortex brain. The reptilian brain is responsible for our ability to sense our outer world through directed movement; it establishes a basis for sensing our inner worlds through emotional awareness developed by the limbic brain, and abstract thought developed by the neo-cortex brain (Burrill). “Information from the three sources – outer world, inner image, and sense of body-self must be integrated in order for learning and development to occur” (221).
How Does Dance Connect to Brain Development?
Engagement in dance supports brain development by offering optimal learning environments for various brain processes. The above basic understanding of how the brain learns allows dance instructors to employ best practices in teaching. These practices support healthy brain and social development. Gilbert describes:
The Ten Principles of Brain Compatible Dance Education are:
- Present Meaningful Curriculum
- Provide an Enriched Environment
- Give Meaningful Feedback
- Include Opportunities for Emotional Engagement
- Allow for Social Interaction
- Present Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum
- Allow Students to take Charge of Their Learning
- Provide Both Novel and Repetitious Experiences
- Offer a Curriculum That is Holistic and Sequential
- Provide Information about Proper Nutrition
(adapted from Gilbert 11-14)
The above principles assure us they are brain based because they have been designed according to current research on how the brain processes information. In addition, Gilbert has designed a dance warm-up, the BrainDance (© Anne Green Gilbert) that “. . . is used for: Neurological re-patterning: re-mapping the brain to develop better behavior, attention, memory, eye-tracking proprioception, motor skills and sensory integration.” (64) Based on Gilbert’s and Lobo and Winsler’s research, the ten principles of brain compatible dance education are applicable and achievable for three to five year-olds. They provide a guide to create the necessary stimulating environment required for brain development and social skill acquisition to occur.
How do These Principles fit into Early Childhood Education?
The design of most early childhood care and learning environments are based on researched principles supporting basic childhood development. “In high-quality programs, children develop a positive sense of identity, learn to trust others, and acquire the characteristics that enable them to succeed as learners. One effective strategy for achieving a quality program is the use of a developmentally appropriate curriculum.” (Dodge, 1171) The social skill domain is particularly important in the preschool years. A clear understanding of this domain can be drawn from the following description by Lobo and Winsler:
Social competence: the capacity for children to attain social goals, engage effectively in complex interpersonal interaction, make and maintain friendships, gain entry to social groups and achieve peer acceptance, is a vitally important domain of child development (Calkins, 1994; Corsario, 1985; Denham, 1998; Eisenberg and Fabes, 1992). (qtd. in Lobo and Winsler 501)
Nonetheless, according to Dodge, children today are falling short in social competency.
Why do so many children today lack social competence? A number of possibilities can be identified:
. . . Inappropriate school curriculums that focus on performance of cognitive tasks and fail to address other areas of development.
Children who have not developed social competence are in particular need of a high quality child day care program. Social skills are developed in the context of caring relationships, where the content of the program is of interest to the children, children are encouraged to explore and exchange ideas, and adults model respect. . . . The Perry Preschool Study shows the long-term benefits of emphasizing social competence in early childhood. Graduates of the high-quality, active-learning preschool program who are now in their late twenties, are significantly more likely to have completed a higher level of schooling, to be employed, to own their own home, and to be in stable relationships, and significantly less likely to have needed social services or to have been arrested, than their peers who attended academically and highly structured preschools. (Dodge 1174)
Referring once again to Gilbert’s Ten Principles of Brain Compatible Dance Education, social domain development is supported in several ways. For example, #“3. Give Meaningful Feedback” (11-14), describes an opportunity for the dance instructor and students to reflect on the movement they see, what it reminds them of, and how it makes them feel. This process of reflection and drawing upon one’s own thoughts to give feedback to others directly supports the children in engaging in the social domain development of complex interpersonal interaction with one another. The material is “of interest to the children, [and] children are encouraged to explore and exchange ideas, and adults model respect.” (Dodge 1174) The child being spoken to has an opportunity to understand that others may not think about the same movement as he/she does, and to work through whatever emotion arises. The child who is speaking has an opportunity to communicate ideas related to something intangible and exercise their ability to describe the emotional experience. The instructor will model feedback delivered positively and honestly while supporting the child receiving the feedback.
The parallel between best practices in early childhood education and best practices in brain based dance education are now very clear: healthy brain development and social skill acquisition are prioritized in both practices.
Is All Dance Education Created Equal?
There are dance techniques for young children that do not align with research based early childhood development curriculum. Commonly present in dance studio and recreation centre programs, these classes are focused on achieving outcomes designed to cater to the hopes and expectations of parents who are most often unaware of developmentally appropriate childhood practices. In the interest of the child’s safety and healthy development it is far too early to introduce that type of skill development. The preschool child who is pushed to learn skills outside of his/her developmentally appropriate time frame often disconnects from their natural interest and primal experience of dance. The same child will acquire the desired skills more positively and quickly when introduced at a developmentally appropriate age level. It is my hope that developmentally appropriate dance education that is research based and supports early childhood education curriculum will soon become the norm for all preschool children’s programs.
Unfortunately, there is a lack of evidence to specifically support dance education for children. “Scientifically rigorous empirical research on the effects of creative dance/movement programs for children’s development has been minimal. . . . Although the literature to date on dance and early childhood has certainly increased our understanding of the roles that dance may play in early childhood development, the field is clearly ready for rigorous empirical tests of hypotheses. One of the reasons that the arts continue to struggle in educational arenas today may be the lack of a solid body of empirical evidence of its benefits.” (Yovanka B. Lobo and Adam Winsler, 504-505)
Where to Dance From Here
Dance and children make ideal bedfellows, providing one another the opportunity to collaborate on building healthy, fully-functioning brains and human beings. “The key to learning success for children is to allow natural learning processes to unfold through freedom of movement and expression. We have an ancient biology that knows far more than educational science can know about the natural processes of learning and development. This study supports a view that suggests the best way to allow for natural processes is through open-ended movement and art activities.” (Burrill 225) When children engage in motor-sensory activity targeted at developing the brain, they are laying a foundation for future learning. When children engage in creative dance classes they are nurturing their social competency skills. Expanding the developmentally appropriate practice of early childhood care and learning through dance education is essential to our children’s growth as healthy, strong, fully-functioning and meaningful individuals. The success of this practice carries large implications toward a future filled with bright, energetic individuals who strive to improve, understand and support one another as fellow human beings.
Burrill, Rebecca. “The Primacy of Movement in Art Making.” Teaching Artist
Journal 8.4 (2010): 216-28. Web.
Dodge, Diane T. “The Importance of Curriculum in Achieving Quality Child Day Care Programs.” Child Welfare 74.6 Nov. (1995): 1171-88. EBSCO Host. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.
Green Gilbert, Anne. Brain Compatible Dance Education. Reston, Virginia: National Dance Association, 2006. 1-346. Print.
Yovanka, Lobo B., and Adam Winsler. “The Effects of a Creative Dance and Movement Program on the Social Competence of Head Start Preschoolers.” Social Development 15.3 (2006): 501-19. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.