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February 1994 | Volume 51 | Number 5
Teaching for Understanding
Movement improvisation offers an alternative avenue to understanding for many students, especially those who learn well in a bodily-kinesthetic mode.
One minute they're teasing, flirting, yelling, chasing, climbing the walls. Fifteen minutes later each child is in a private world, eyes closed, discovering the nuances of a body shape with the conscientiousness of an explorer.
For 12 years, I have been using creative movement as a language for teaching curriculum in elementary schools. My work has been conducted through various artist-in-residency programs, many funded by the New York Foundation for the Arts. I have delved into topics as diverse as math, punctuation, science, literature, social studies, and more, in lessons that stress kinesthetic learning: learning through the language of dance and movement.
Before they enter school, young children experience and explore the world mainly through nonverbal language: by feeling, pulling, pushing, throwing, swinging. No one has to teach children to jump for joy, to roll down a grassy hill, or to pound their bodies on the floor during a tantrum. Children react to the world in physical ways. By the time they get to elementary school, they still feel comfortable in that nonverbal language: creative movement. To ignore this natural resource is a waste, a barrier to the process of education.
In his 1983 book Frames of Mind, Howard Gardner documented seven kinds of intelligences common to human beings. In my work I seek not only to expand on one of those modes of intelligence—bodily-kinesthetic—but to use it to reach other intelligences as well.
The arts and education are truly inseparable: You cannot study the arts without learning concepts of math, science, history, and problem solving, nor can you be truly educated if you are ignorant of the role of the arts in culture and history. When we consciously integrate the arts and education, the benefits of each are magnified.
The applications of kinesthetic learning are remarkably wide-ranging:
For teachers who may feel intimidated or overwhelmed by the idea of using movement and creative improvisation as a teaching tool, remember that you do not have to do the movement yourselves. The children will supply all the physicality needed for a successful lesson. Your job is to supply the direction, the guided imagery, the permission to be physical, and an encouraging gleam in your eye. The idea is not to have the children imitate your movements, but to discover their own physical language. Music, props, fabrics, a shadow screen, or beautifully illustrated children's books can also add to the stimulation and motivation of your children.
For those not comfortable with what might seem like uncontrolled energy, set up a system of freedom and restraint that will supply a secure structure for everyone. (When I bang once on my drum, everyone freezes no matter what they're doing. We even practice holding a position with one leg in the air.) Set up certain routines like warm-up and closings; starting simple and building up; starting with solos, then partners, then small groups. Children, too, will feel better knowing you are in control.
You will find that representing academic concepts in physical ways makes the learning more accessible and memorable for children, and fosters creative and dynamic energy in the classroom. Besides learning specific curricular content from these kinesthetic activities, children exposed to creative movement as a language for learning are becoming more aware of their own natural resources. They are expanding their concepts of creativity and of how they can use their own bodies. They are learning through their own creations. The combination of discipline and imagination is an invaluable foundation for creative thinking. Encouraging children to work both alone and with others, to give and to take, to evaluate and to edit, to feel and to think, proves to be empowering to students, and ultimately, therefore, to teachers.
Susan Griss is a choreographer, dancer, and educator. She may be reached at 30 Old Whitfield Rd., Accord, NY 12404. For the past 12 years, Griss has focused on the integration of dance and elementary education. She also presents teacher training workshops in colleges and teacher training centers.
Copyright © 1994 by Susan Griss
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