Last month I was the invited guest speaker on the Earlyarts webinar. This piece is a response to the online discussion I had around the considered topic ‘Can Dance Help Children to Become School Ready?‘ This blog is intended to extend some of those important discussions further.
What is school ready?
PACEY research (2013) reported that almost half of all respondents ie parents, childcare professionals and teachers identified a lack of common expectation of what school readiness looks like and so the first thing I want to address is about any misconception when using the term.
The government defines and describes ‘school readiness’ as a measure of how prepared a child is to succeed in school cognitively, socially and emotionally. A good level of development (GLD) is expected in the three prime learning areas ie Physical, PSE, Communication and Language plus Literacy and Mathematics.
Whilst distinguishing learning areas is necessary from a practical perspective, one of the barriers I believe is that these areas of development are seen as distinct and the links between them are not widely understood by many parents, early years educators or indeed, the policy makers themselves. Whilst the DfE outlines ‘school readiness’ explicitly, in reality they are also placing more and more emphasis on our youngest children to achieve through formal learning models (PACEY, 2013, Gyimah, 2015). (See my previous blog on my views on the phonic screening here). Based on recent published statistics more than 40% of boys and almost a third of all London’s children are not reaching a GLD by age 5 (Korkodilos, 2015).
The government does advocate encouraging physical activity. Not least because we have a rising childhood obesity problem in this country, which is mirroring health issues already established in the US. Whilst this is the driving public health objective there is, sadly, much less awareness regarding the links physical activity has to academic attainment. Since many of our children are starting school without the skills in place to support optimal learning we really do have to begin to join the dots and recognize the reasons why that might be. We might like to believe that there is a socio-economic condition that affects only certain sectors of our communities but findings indicate that only 1 in 10 children aged 2-4 meet the CMO guidelines of daily physical activity (Korkodilos, 2015).
The obesity issue is actually the visible tip of a much larger problem, which impacts on our youngest children’s life-long learning potential. And we really don’t have to look that far for examples of the contributing environmental factors that are unique to our common era. Here’s three examples that might strike a chord:
“Parents recognize that they are key to preparing their children for school, but need more information and support in achieving this” (PACEY, 2013, p.1).
Young children are predominantly kinaesthetic learners. They are biologically programmed towards full-bodied experiences for healthy growth of the nervous (body-brain) system. Neural networks form in the brain through physical experiences, and this process is literally how thought connections are made which build the capacity for higher order thinking. It therefore follows that the capacity for abstract formal reasoning does not begin to mature until around age seven.
What I wish most to communicate is that a lack of physical movement experience doesn’t just affect our children’s weight and general health it actually impacts and limits brain development (Bryck & Fisher, 2012). To compartmentalize the area of physical development means to not recognize how related it is to all other areas of learning. ‘Descartes Error’ (Damasio, 2006), describes how the 17th century French philosopher’s most famous saying “I think therefore, I am” is fundamentally flawed.
Far from being distinct, we have a body-minded brain. In this respect outdoor and other kinds of free movement play are all valid however I believe the very nature of dance has something quite unique to contribute to early learning and to our education system as a whole. Not only is dance a multi-sensory experience, it offers multi-modal and layered processing opportunities that optimise development and learning.
Below are just a few examples of how dance movement can permeate all the learning areas of the EYFS and contribute significantly to nurturing school ready learners.
Dance, by its very nature, is a social activity and it’s also one of the few physical activities that young children can experience doing in a group where participating as an active individual, as part of small and larger group sizes, watching and turn taking are all intrinsically involved.
From an emotional perspective, when we think of a toddler we can begin to see that their physical stability is closely related to their emotional stability and the ability to self-regulate behaviour. When physical stability improves, emotional development matures. Dance movement vocabulary can enhance acquiring skills of balance and control without an extrinsic or competitive end goal so that all children can enjoy and achieve at their own pace.
These days we have a much more risk adverse society but a lack of opportunity to take physical risks may also impact on the confidence needed later to take intellectual risks (Gray, 2013). Through dance young children can be guided to try out new and different ways of moving through creative exploration, relatively risk free, thus building social, emotional and physical competence and confidence simultaneously. These are skills fundamental to success in the classroom.
Communication and Language:-
Understanding our body and the body language of others is our first means of communication. ‘Communication skills depend on well developed physical skills’ (Korkodilos, 2015, p.18). To underpin this, you have just to consider how language is full of physical metaphors: We “jump for joy”, we might need to “tread carefully” in certain situations, we “go around in circles” until we find a solution. We need to experience these things in the concrete before we can comprehend their meaning in the abstract.
As well as a physical frame of reference, rhythmical experience precedes spoken language. A movement phrase, performed with or without music, is just like a sentence with accents and cadence. Dance is physicalized and processed through the entire body and so has the greatest impact on rhythmic understanding. Children learning more than one language can often seem behind their peers in their level of communication, as can other children who are less or non-verbal. A dance movement approach can be especially beneficial for these children to be able to demonstrate a greater level of understanding through physical communication and at the same time increasing their language and communication skills.
If taught with a sound pedagogical anchoring, dance movement has so much to positively contribute to early literacy goals. In common parlance, we say that reading comes before writing, but in terms of physical development the opposite is true. Learning through dance helps to develop the gross motor and proprioceptive skills that precede the development of finer motor skills and eye tracking required first for mark making and later for reading.
The increasingly complex movement patterns inherent in dance optimize neural connectivity. On a neural level there is a connection between physical literacy and executive function.
Dance is intrinsically a multi-modal activity, learned by seeing, hearing, feeling and doing simultaneously. Children who have additional needs, including those whose first language is not English, are able to more easily follow instruction and increase their understanding and vocabulary.
The physical strength building and development of control that dance supports, are essential in order to be able access more formal learning approaches such as ‘carpet time’, where children are expected to have acquired skills of immobility, to be able to sit still and focus full attention on a learning task.
Teaching curriculum content through movement is a topic close to the heart of one of my professional associates Michael Kuczala, author of The Kinesthetic Classroom (2010). (Read his guest blog here). Dance is a great medium by which to teach the early years curriculum and mathematics particularly lends itself to these conditions.
Laban’s Movement Analysis defines dance through the constructs of Space, Weight and Time. In dance we create movement patterns in space, which we count and repeat, engaging in this activity through a full-bodied experience, which we define by qualities. Not only is this matter of energy real physics it is the brain’s preferred way to learn. We learn best by doing and we develop thinking skills and strategies and memory as a stand-alone frame of reference that we can then apply to other learning contexts.
PHE recommends as a strategy a “focus on cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of learning” (Korkodilos, 2015, p.20).This is clunky terminology for what is meant by recognizing acquisition of soft skills. Skills such as, the development of imagination and creativity (Claxton & Lucas 2015) that are explicitly supported by arts activity. PACEY (2013) advocates both child-led and adult-led play and a dance experience can foster and be enriched by both of these approaches.
Above all, it’s hard to imagine a more fun-filled physical activity which, when delivered with sound pedagogy, could prepare our children better for school than a regular high quality dance experience. The real barriers and issues to its practical application and wider access are in raising parental and arts practitioner awareness and supporting early years professional development through the sharing of best practice on platforms such as this.
Ali Golding MSc, PG Cert SEN, BA (Hons), FRSA is a choreographer, dance scientist, researcher, educator & Creative Director of MovementWorks. MovementWorks was established specifically to provide and promote quality movement education with particular emphasis on the young, their carers, educators and the community. The MovementWorks approach focuses on the interface between cognitive neuroscience, educational theory and movement research.
The research-based organization fosters the global benefits of Developmental Dance Movement in Early Years and Primary education. It provides a unique Developmental Dance Movement™ programme to mainstream, special needs schools and early years settings, CPD training and parental education workshops.
Bryck, R. & Fisher, P. 2012. Training the brain – Practical applications of neural plasticity from the intersection of cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology and prevention science. American Psychologist, 67(2), 87-100
Claxton, G & Lucas, B. 2015. Educating Ruby: What our children really need to learn. Crown House.
Damasio, A.R. 2006. Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason and the human brain. NY: Putnam.
Gray, P. 2013. Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant and better students for life. Basic books.
Gyimah, S. 2015. More children than ever starting school ready to learn. Department for Education. Crown Copyright.
Korkodilos.M, 2015. Improving school readiness: Creating a better start for London. Public Health England. Crown Copyright.
Kuczala, M. & Lengel, T. 2010. The kinesthetic classroom. Corwin.
PACEY. 2013. What does school ready really mean? A research report from Professional Association for childcare and early years.
Image Credits: Ali Golding, MovementWorks; Wong Meiling, Universal Scribbles; Jesus Diaz, Gizmodo