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.
- At 1:30 he's stumbling through a paragraph that is two years beneath his grade level. In frustration and embarrassment, his eyes wander out the window. At 2:00, in a bare room with three other students and a teacher who is narrating a Dr. Seuss story, he demonstrates with concentration and professionalism the choreography he was taught a week ago. He weaves his way from upstage to downstage at the appropriate cue, adept at this kinetic vocabulary, which he translates for the benefit of the slower movers.
The children are learning about sound waves. Through which medium does sound travel fastest: air, water, or solids? Their intuition tells them air, but when they line up in three “molecule formations” (closest together as a solid and farthest apart as air) and pass a “sound wave” shoulder tap through their lines, the solid group finishes first, the air group last. Yes, they understand!
- The teacher describes extraordinary accounts of escape and courage on the Underground Railroad. After turning out the classroom lights, she plays spirituals on the tape recorder and leads the children out into the imaginary woods. They hide behind trees, crawl on their bellies, run from barking dogs, stretch from rock to rock across icy streams so as not to get their feet frostbitten—all in silence for fear of being caught. Suddenly the teacher's foot is caught in an animal trap; the children have to carry her, and carry her they do—right through the door of history.
Creative Movement as a Language
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.
Kinesthetic Learning in the Classroom
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:
- Increased comprehension. Interpreting a concept through physical means (like the lesson on sound waves) helps children—especially those at the elementary level—to grasp, internalize, and maintain abstract information.
In mathematics, for example, children can explore geometric shapes by stretching their bodies and long pieces of elastic and discovering the relationship of one shape to another. To help with fractions, children can make complicated rhythm charts that govern the timing of their dancing—for example, eight runs take the same time as four skips or two body swings, or one circle ending in a pivot turn. By linking different combinations of these movements, children can practice adding mixed fractions.
Many science lessons, too, can be taught by incorporating kinesthetic activities. The principles governing light waves, animal adaptation, kinetic energy, body systems, simple machines, and even aspects of molecular energy can all be graphically and experientially demonstrated through children's bodies. Once “performed,” these principles will not be forgotten.
The solar system can be “mapped” through a dance piece involving spinning. The child who is Venus will be the only one rotating clockwise; Mercury will revolve around the Sun four times faster than Earth. Multidisciplinary learning then occurs when each “planet” develops a short solo dance representing some aspect of the mythological god for which the planet was named.
- Whole language. Why not expand the concept of whole language to include movement? Because it is expressive, informative, and analytical, creative movement can heighten these language arts. For example, by improvising creative movement to explore the feelings and themes in stories, children do a nonverbal character analysis and experience the cause-and-effect of events, which they can then verbalize. Creative movement can also help them remember sequences of events or fill in details of a story's setting. Some personal favorites that lend themselves to movement include Swimmy by Leo Lionni; the African folktale The Calabash Children; Aesop's fable The Wind and the Sun; The Lorax by Dr. Seuss; or The Great Blueness by Arnold Lobel.
For ESL children or those having difficulty with the written word, dancing an autobiography can be a very effective “coming out.” Children can create simple movements that express something about who they are or what they like to do; that reveal their earliest memory or a significant event in their lives; that share an aspect of their ethnicity; that show a vision of themselves as they would like to be in the future. Let them bring the movements together into an autobiographical dance, and have the other kids respond and interact.
A lesson involving the creation of symmetrical and asymmetrical group tableaus can teach students aspects of design, focus their observance of detail, and help them understand the development of a theme or sequence of events (fundamental reading skills). Even as simple drill lessons in basic grammar and punctuation, physicalizing the long and short vowel sounds, creating letter shapes, or “walking” through sentences while dancing the punctuation marks, can create new pathways in the brain for remembering.
- Multicultural insights. Dance provides a wonderful way to explore both the universality and particularity of human cultures. By learning ethnic dances and physically interpreting the poetry, literature, and folklores of diverse cultures, children develop deeper insights into the aesthetics and value systems of those cultures. Including multicultural dance in the curriculum also offers an excellent opportunity to invite professional artists to share their expertise with children.
Some of the stories that lend themselves to this approach are: Abiyoyo (a South African folktale retold by Pete Seeger); Arrow to the Sun (a Hopi tale retold by Gerald McDermott); Shadow (a poem about eastern Africa translated from the French by Marcia Brown); and the story of the Chinese Ribbon Dance.
- Affective education and social skills. The skills emphasized in creative movement have application throughout our educational endeavors. Trust, communication, cooperation, discipline, persistence, introspection, creative thinking, problem solving, observation, analysis, criticism—all are part of the process of creative movement.
As part of a two-day training for public school peer mediators through the Dutchess County Mediation Center in New York, I offer a kinesthetic workshop, which uses creative physical activities and nonverbal improvisation to highlight mediation skills. In the area of conflict resolution, children explore empathy and win-lose vs. win-win solutions.
- Disruptive energy made creative: For the child who “cannot stay in his or her seat,” kinesthetic learning is often a magical key. It's not surprising at a joint teacher evaluation to find that the “problem child” for one teacher is a prized student for the kinesthetic teacher. It's much easier, after all, to channel disruptive energy into creative paths when a teacher is working with a physical language. Simply providing an opportunity to express pent-up physical energy often produces surprising amounts of concentration and focus.
A Word to Teachers
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.