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Early Learners: Works in Progress


Let child development concepts lead the way in teaching young children

By Debbie Werbrouck

I never know who’s going to have the most fun in a brand-new class of preschoolers—them or me. The kids are as cute and excited as can be and it’s my job to make sure they are learning as well as having fun. In order to do that, I need not only dance knowledge but also an understanding of child development. I will be most effective as a teacher if I know what the abilities of my students are, both physically and developmentally.

Teaching early learners
Anyone who teaches early learners must enjoy very young children and the pace at which they work. Teachers need to be flexible and willing to forgo a planned lesson in order to adapt to the needs of the students.

(Photo by Theresa Smerud)

(Photo by Theresa Smerud)

Educating preschoolers is not simply watering down technique or using nursery school music to accompany movement. These children are not merely small people; they are exciting works in progress. A good educator understands what students are capable of learning at specific ages. So how do you gain that knowledge? Libraries and websites are rich sources of information on children’s general physical, social, and emotional abilities. Working alongside an experienced early-learner educator is also a wonderful way to understand the special requirements of teaching young students, as is attending a college class in child development.

Early-learner educators must communicate well with parents. Since parents of these young students tend to remain at the studio during classes (and may even participate with their children) and need to learn about the activities and benefits of dance classes, teachers will have more interaction with them than with those of older students.

If you are a school owner, one of the first decisions you must make is which ages you will accept. While many schools accept children at age 3 into standard dance programs, some offer the option of parent/child classes beginning at age 2 or 2 1/2. These classes acquaint children with movement while their parents accompany them, allowing for a one-to-one ratio with students. Although students are exposed to basic movement concepts, the material is presented less formally than it would be for slightly older students.

Working with parents
In a parent/child class, I explain that I lead the class but that parents will work one-on-one with their children. I tell them that their children may not participate in every activity or might not complete all of them. Some children may want to observe before participating. I emphasize that their child’s focus, interest, energy, and abilities might vary from class to class.

My only “rule” is that children are not disruptive, which means no touching or interfering with other students, screaming, running around the room, hanging on barres, or touching mirrors. But because the children are so young, it is the parents’ job to make sure that none of these things happen, and if they do, to remove their children until they are ready to participate in class activities.

I explain how we do each activity as well as also the reason for it, such as large or small motor coordination, body identification, or balance development. I plan the classes with a balance of new and familiar activities that range from very active to quiet, and I keep the class moving. I tell the parents how the activities build on one another and how the students will become more independent until they are ready, physically and socially, to be in a class without a parent.

Planning your class
Class length for early learners varies from school to school. At my school, classes for the youngest students last 30 minutes. I chose this length for two reasons: Young children have short attention spans, and I feel that it is better to leave them wanting more. As students age and progress, the class length increases.

For the benefit of both students and teachers, classes for young children need to be smaller than those for older dancers at higher levels of proficiency. Another factor to consider is the best time for these classes. Morning, early afternoon, or Saturday classes that avoid naptimes usually work best.

Keeping kids engaged
Most educators have their own techniques for keeping children excited about class. Children love repetition, both in doing the same movement, song, or story repeatedly and also in reviving a favorite song or activity frequently.

However, repetition should happen because students are excited to do it, not because the educator wants to drill an exercise. This is where experience and creativity come into play. Doing the same activity in a different way adds excitement. Instead of doing a tendu with students in a straight line, try having them stand on colored space markers, in a circle facing a Mexican hat or with a partner, or with a beanbag balanced on their head. The variations are endless.

Variations promote the students’ enjoyment and creativity as they learn and remember the movement and its name; the goal is not proficiency. For example, early learners cannot maintain a stretched, controlled tendu, but they can learn that “tendu” means “to stretch” and that it looks like a “sharp, pointy pencil.” They will be able to stand on one foot for increasingly longer periods while extending the other forward in their “tendu,” and that is an accomplishment.

Variables in development
Children who are the same age are not necessarily the same in terms of development. Not only do they mature at various rates, but a child who has just turned 3 is much different than one who is 3 years and 9 months old. Over the course of an academic year, you will witness many transformations as the students progress. It might take one child several attempts to enter the classroom without a parent, while another student would love nothing more than to lead the class.

Classes for 3- to 4-year-olds
In classes for 3-year-olds, we do many of the same activities as in our parent/child class, but the students’ independence adds another element. Now the children learn to enter the classroom on their own, find their places, and participate without their parents’ help. Seeing the pride on the students’ faces as they gain confidence in their own knowledge and abilities is gratifying.

For our 3- to 4-year-olds, we have a class called Dance Movement (I & II). Here are some of the things they are capable of learning.

• Behaving in a group class
• Following multi-part instructions (e.g., “Stand tall and make a round circle with your arms”)
• Identifying parts of the body
• Standing briefly on one foot
• Bending the knees
• Jumping
• Hopping• Galloping
• Beginning to skip
• Rising up and walking on tiptoe
• Marching
• Chasséing
• Moving in various directions (forward, back, side)
• Understanding opposites: big/little, fast/slow
• Stopping movement upon instruction
• Following a pattern of movement
• Following a pattern of rhythm (e.g., clapping three times)
• Using and developing imagination and creativity
• Basic dance vocabulary (exciting to parents and students alike)
• Learning and performing a short, simple song and dance

Techniques and tools
We use a variety of techniques and props as learning tools in our early-learners classes. Colorful rhythm sticks or other percussion instruments develop both rhythm awareness and small motor coordination while capturing students’ interest. Bubbles and scarves demonstrate a “light” or “floating” quality that the children can emulate. (Ask them to show you how a bubble or scarf floats to the ground.) Hula-hoops can define a space, provide a path to follow, and illustrate a shape that students can understand. Doing a “freeze dance” while marching develops good listening skills as well as large motor coordination.

Children love surprises, which can be as simple as a new movement (with a new name to learn) that they can demonstrate for their parents.

Defusing unrealistic expectations
Educating parents about what their children will learn is almost as important as teaching the students. If parents have no experience in dance or if they are first-time parents, they may have unrealistic expectations of what their children can accomplish. Demanding more than a child can deliver can do real harm to her self-esteem. Explaining the goals and benefits of activities not only helps both child and parent feel proud of small accomplishments, it also reinforces the fact that this physical, mental, social, and emotional education is an ongoing process. It helps them understand that dance is not an activity to be tried briefly and then crossed off the list as an accomplishment.

Defining dance education
When educators explain that activities like making shapes with arms and legs are actually pre-reading and pre-math skills, parents no longer see dance class as “just playing.” Counting, making, and recognizing shapes like circles, squares, and triangles are activities used in early math. Small motor-coordination skills (such as drawing circles in the air) or large motor-coordination skills (such as physically making the shape of a letter, either alone or with others) aid in early reading.

Most parents understand that people learn in a variety of ways, but they may not understand the concepts of kinesthetic learning and spatial awareness. Telling parents how dance provides learning on many levels—auditory, visual, and kinesthetic—helps them realize how dance influences the learning process and how dance can benefit their children in school and throughout their lives.



  • By Teresa Benzwi
    Alphabet Movers
    A Moving Experience: Dance for Lovers of Children and the Child Within
    More Moving Experiences: Connecting Arts, Feelings, and Imagination
  • By Anne Green Gilbert
    Brain-Compatible Dance Education
    Creative Dance for All Ages: A Conceptual Approach
    Teaching the Three Rs Through Movement Experiences
    Teaching the Three Rs Through Movement Experiences: A Handbook for Teacher
  • By Howard Gardner
    Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences
  • By Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl
    The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind
  • National Dance Education Organization Standards for Dance in Early Childhood
  • By Sue Stinson
    Dance For Young Children: Finding the Magic in Movement (published by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance)
  • UNITY: Early Childhood Philosophy and Goals


  • Primary Movers Move Russia (featuring Rima Faber)
  • Brain Dance (Anne Green Gilbert)
  • Teaching Creative Dance (Anne Green Gilbert)



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August 2009
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