When I started dance as a 4yr old, I remember my ballet teacher had a big stick… That’s it. That’s actually all I remember.
Gone are the days of regimented dance lessons with strict teachers that push kids to strive for perfection with no respect for the beauty of difference and diversity.
Or so they should be.
Preschool dance lessons can be one of the most exciting, engaging and enriching experiences for your little one. Yet too often students are still being forced to interact and learn dance the old way – boring skill and drill with an excessive focus on technique – or, even worse, through nothing other than fairies and princesses.
Now, I love a good princess as much as the next person (after all, Princess Leia is my idol), but there’s a whole world full of characters, experiences, situations and things for the littlest ones in our community to explore.
Our Pocket Rockets preschool and kindy dance classes are some of my all time favourite classes to teach… Why? Because they’re super playful but packed full of powerful learning.
Dance is complex. There’s SO much going on at any one time. Students are working towards mastering movements with technique, musicality and artistry. But these three over-arching areas contain their own elements – control, coordination, dynamics, spatial awareness, expression, timing, projection… and that’s only naming a few! Not to mention that spatial awareness in one movement is completely different to how it appears in another. It gets super complex super quickly. How do I know? Two chapters of my PhD explore how teaching builds complexity and precision into dance movement.
But that’s a whole lot for a little mind and body to take in.
So… how do we approach it and make it fun and engaging for active, imaginative minds with short attention spans? And how do we make sure that all students have a chance to engage and participate, no matter where they’re at with their physical, emotional and cognitive development?
Play is an incredibly powerful learning tool, but all too often it gets left outside the dance studio.
When you watch our littlest dancers, you might see them acting out animal shapes, like crabs, bears, flamingos and scorpions. They’re actually developing their cross-body slings and proprioception, which are super crucial for physical and postural fitness, not to mention their recall and sequencing skills too.
You might also see them stirring pots of paint and throwing it to the person next to and across from them. This is a crowd favourite at the moment (they love it, and so do I!). The benefits extend far past a little cheeky, imaginative messiness. They’re developing unilateral (one-sided) and bilateral (two-sided) coordination, gaining an embodied understanding of directions and prepositions (across, up), as well as finessing different qualities of movement – a slow wave of the arm as we imagine the paint drips off our fingers and then a super sharp “splat” as we throw it.
In fact, one of the most in-demand activities we do is ‘Nighttime Adventure’ (affectionately called “The Sleepy-time Dance”). It’s a short 1-minute “dance-a-story” where we pretend it’s our birthday or Christmas, and we sneak out of bed and try to catch a glimpse of our present while it’s being wrapped. This one is all about being able to communicate and express ideas through movement. You can feel the palpable tension as they cautiously and quietly open the door to peek at their present. And I’ll tell you this – you’ll never see your kids run so quickly to go to ‘bed’!
What I love is listening to the kids tell me what their present is. Penguins and polar bears, big, scary dinosaurs, rainbow unicorns and lollipops, jumping castles and monsters. They’re only limited by their imagination, and that’s the sign of real play-based learning at work. The chance to make choices and come up with their own ideas. The chance to interact and move in ways that work for their bodies.
So the next time you see your kid standing like a flamingo, throwing paint, or off on a little nighttime adventure, know that they’re engaging in some very powerful learning and having a whole lot of fun at the same time.
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