28 June 2017

Dancing to Their Own Tune


by Amy de Putron, Royal Academy of Dance

Movement and dance play a vital part in the development of young children. The early childhood years represent a time of rapid growth and development, when young children become aware of their own bodies and what they can do with them.

Watching them at play in the park or at nursery school; running, jumping, turning, sliding and swinging illustrates the necessity of movement for their well being and contentment. At this early age children have a powerful curiosity and active imaginations, making it natural for them to want to experiment with movement and explore their physical capabilities.

The learning process in pre-school children is very closely connected to movement, where children are learning to move as well as learning through movement. The development of movement is through a definite series of motor skills. The development of strength, speed, co-ordination and precision in the use of muscles usually occur in a logical and progressive sequence.

Motor development experts acknowledge that in the learning of fundamental movements children progress through varying stages. From the initial through to the mature stages, children learn how to perform movement with control and co-ordination.

Movement is the core element in any dance class. Therefore, through participation in dance classes, pre-school children can expand their movement vocabulary, aiding in the development of motor skills. The challenge for dance teachers of pre-school children is to ensure that their classes use a movement vocabulary congruent to the children's stage of development. Fundamental movements, such as walking, running, turning and jumping can be developed through participation in a dance class and the development of these skills is pertinent for children's future learning.

Dance classes are also a great environment for children to develop self-confidence, self-esteem and social skills. Using fundamental movements as the basis of their classes, teachers can create movement experiences that help children to become familiar with the movement capabilities of their bodies. Such experiences help to develop children's spatial awareness, develop control, hand/eye co-ordination and the ability to respond creatively, through movement, to varying stimuli such as music and sounds, stories and poems.

However, the focus at this early age is less about skill and more about experiencing movement in its diversity. Young childhood is not a time to limit movement experience or perfect movement ability, rather the achievement of co-ordination and fluidity. Research highlights that teaching specialised skills to children before mature fundamental movement patterns have been established can be detrimental. Not only can the quality and future development of the movement be affected, but children can also lose motivation.

Limiting movement experience can not only inhibit the development of motor skills, but also affect children's spontaneity and creativity. In order to promote creativity within children, the dance class needs to provide the scope for children to explore and enjoy their own movement capabilities, rather than the refinement of movement to a prescribed style.

Learning social skills at this age is another vital part of their development and forms a solid grounding for their school years. Learning to work co-operatively within a class group provides children with the communication skills needed later on in life. In the dance class children learn how to work with each other, how to take turns and interact with their peers as well as their teachers.

Research shows that when children experience enjoyment and success at movement experiences, they will be motivated to continue physical activity into their adult lives. It is up to the dance teacher to introduce movement and dance experiences that allow children to discover their own personal success and fulfilment.

In Britain, research by health experts has highlighted how changes in lifestyle over the past few decades have resulted in many children becoming unfit and not participating in enough exercise. Many traditional playground games such as hopscotch, skipping, rhythm games and circle songs have been replaced with technological toys that require minimum physical effort. Many children prefer to watch television or play computer games than play outdoors. As a result of cultural factors, fundamental movement abilities may be lagging in many children. For children attending dance classes the responsibility lies with the teacher to endorse the practice of their development.

Cognitive development within children at this age is as important as the development of motor skills. During the pre-school years speech and vocabulary are rapidly improving, and childern become increasingly able to communicate their own ideas and feelings. Allowing them to imagine, explore and be creative through movement will enhance the development of their decision-making skills. Setting up opportunities for children to think for themselves could improve their cognitive skills as well as keep their attention and focus throughout the class.

The development of movement through dance classes has many additional benefits including the introduction of musicality within children. Observation skills are enhanced through the imitation of movements demonstrated by the class teacher and children's listening skills are stimulated. This together with building skills in spatial awareness, self-awareness and communication mean that participation in dance classes can enhance the overall cognitive affective and physical development of children.

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