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Shaping Creativity


Structure gives freedom in teaching kids to make movement

By Heidi Landgraf

Kids are nothing if not creative. They invent songs, create mini-worlds to play in, and use colors all over the page in what seems like an unstoppable flow of creative inspiration. They don’t block the flow by judging it as adults do, but rather let it come through with unbridled force.

Students in the Hubbard Street MAP program play with shapes during a creativity exercise. (Photo by Sinead Kimbrell)

When it comes to making dances, as teachers we want to harness this creativity and shape it—mold it into something to share with an audience, perhaps. I find that one of the best ways to foster kids’ creativity within the making-movement realm is to give them structured parameters to work within.

Kids need structure in order to play—we all know that. But rather than giving them technical steps in any particular dance style, I prefer to give them movement concepts and let their creative minds run amok with them. I also find using meaning very helpful. So let me share a few examples of how to build dances from kids’ minds and bodies and not ours. We do need a break from the pure physicality of movement from time to time after all.

Rudolf Laban’s work has been invaluable in the field of dance because he was the first to translate movement into something we can measure—to parse it apart and make it easier to actually see. As a beginning entry into his work, we can look at the four motion factors: space, weight, time, and flow. These factors can be worked with in a creative way to help kids find movement on their own.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has harnessed many of these concepts for use in its Movement As Partnership program. I am teaching in this program, which is dedicated to bringing dance into Chicago public schools. The program combines basic Laban concepts with movement games to invoke skillful play in the students. What follows is a breakdown of Laban concepts and some ways to play with them.

  • Space: can be broken down into levels—low, medium, and high—and can be used to move through (locomote), or stay motionless in, as in creating a frozen shape. In Laban terms it is considered direct or indirect as you move through it. Direct might be like moving in a straight line or with deliberate clear intent versus a squiggly line that is unfocused in its intent.
  • Weight: can be considered as energy and seen on a spectrum from heavy to light, discussed as increasing or decreasing pressure.
  • Time: can also be known as tempo, and is on a spectrum from slow to fast.
  • Flow: can be considered as energy and is on a spectrum from bound to free.

After teaching these concepts and having kids explore each as a tool, you can start to blend them. In one particular residency, my co-teacher Sinead Kimbrell, associate director of HSDC’s Education & Community Programs, and I wanted to work with meaning and movement, so we had the kids (third- and fourth-graders, 30 per class) brainstorm as many everyday gestures as they could think of. We then called out the gestures and had the kids layer them with the aforementioned tools, as in, “Brush your teeth very slowly on a low level, walk the dog with heavy energy very quickly, and then elbow your friend with bound energy on a medium level.” The movement suddenly transformed itself into a certain kind of dance of its own.

Once they learn the concepts, kids see all of these possibilities open up. The concepts can be expanded further as well. Other tools you can use in terms of working with space include using pathways in movement, as in skipping on a curved, zigzag, or straight pathway; another is to consider movement relationships, as in under, over, around, through, near, or far.

In order to play with these relationships we had the kids explore them within their own bodies first (entwining arms and legs for “around” and “through,” as an example), and then with each other. We sectioned off the floor space and created separate worlds for them to dance in such as the “under” world, the “near” world, and the “through” world. Kids quickly discovered that in order to go under someone else, a partner had to create a shape that they could move through.

Kids need structure in order to play—we all know that. But rather than giving them technical steps in any particular dance style, I prefer to give them movement concepts and let their creative minds run amok.

When teaching dance in Columbia College’s Summer Arts Camp (second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders, about 20 per class and segmented out by age), I used Laban concepts plus storytelling as another way to create dances. This structural launch pad is ripe with movement possibility. One fun way to create the story is to use an add-on structure with children in a circle. I start the story with a sentence and the kids go all the way around the circle adding on one sentence at a time until it is complete. I made a list of movement vocabulary to choose from when creating the sentences, so that the kids had a lot of movement choices built into the story. They could also pull from all of the Laban terms when creating their sentences. Then split into small groups, the students found it easy to make up dances based on the story they created. It was fun to watch all of the different dance versions that appeared.

There are many possibilities for using movement concepts and games with kids. The Laban terms mentioned here are only a few. You can reference Laban for All by Jean Newlove and John Dalby for more detailed explanations of the concepts and how to apply them. Or visit for information on the MAP program. As teachers we can also be big kids and unleash our creativity in how we teach. The concepts are merely a starting point. Have fun!



2 Responses to “Shaping Creativity”

  • Great article! I too use Laban’s concepts for multiple age groups and ability levels. Currently am exploring using these concepts teaching adults with mixed ability levels including physical and cognitive challenges. When teaching ballet I use these concepts to help students explore specific areas of movement to enhance their ballet technique. Great work!

  • Hi Jacqui!
    I’m glad you liked the article! Are you a dance/movement therapist by any chance? I am in training at Columbia College’s Dance/Movement Therapy and Counseling program and am working with Parkinson’s clients with this work as well. I see you work with adults with cognitive challenges. What kind of challenges? In what way do you adapt the work to suit their needs?
    All best –
    Heidi Landgraf

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