Early Childhood Dance Play: learning through movement

Play based learning in early childhood builds on children’s own ideas, inspired by their natural curiosity.  Children’s excitement with exploring new ideas is something that early childhood and dance educators can harness to unfold learning through Dance Play.

dance play

I was lucky enough to attend the recent Free to Play Summit, conducted by the inspirational Sally Haughey from fairydustteaching.com.  The many wonderful speakers all stressed the importance of young children’s freedom to move and play.

As a dance educator and grandmother, it made me reflect on new ways to engage with Dance Play. It reminded me of how important it is for children to find their own bodies in dance, rather than teachers always telling them what shape to make or how to move.

This is not the only approach to dance in Early Childhood education, but it is a great way to discover, inspire, and create together.

Dance as a way of playing

The improvisational nature of creative movement in early childhood learning, allows children to learn about their bodies.   Through joyful celebration and connection with their intrinsic selves, children observe their own bodies in action.

The body stiffened and muscles tightened in fear, or skipping, hopping, and twirling for joy.  The body can reflect much about ourselves and how we experience the world around us.

The abstract concept of Dance Play as ‘art’ embraces the idea of children expressing their lived experience.  Even very young children can show you how they feel without words.

Dance Play

Our physical communication with children begins when they are babies.  The mother singing, rhythmically patting, and rocking the baby.  Babies learn through our gestures, posture, and facial expression as much as what we say or how we say it.

Also, children can communicate their ideas about what they are observing through their bodies.  They have an inbuilt need to express.

This innate willingness to play through their body is a way to engage young children in learning.  Another benefit to creative movement is the development of important physical functions such as balance and muscle strength.  More than this, it empowers children to become self-directed, curious, seekers of knowledge.

But does the traditional dance lesson in early childhood teaching leave room for this sense of freedom?  How do we, as teachers, ensure that we are part of the play, not taking it over?

Dance is the language of childhood.                                                                                                 Susan Wright & Jan Dean

Dance Play as a way of knowing

We know that dance is an effective way of integrating other learning areas.  However, many of the activities for Early childhood children is about the dance demonstrating an idea rather then it coming from children’s own explorations.

Recent brain and dance research has shown how dance uses neuro-behaviors to increase intra and inter brain synchrony. (Basso et al, 2021) Dance helps children create the ability to learn, apply, and remember information.

Dance is a way of processing ideas, emotions, shapes, materials, sounds and movements.

Dance Play is sometimes seen as a break from learning about ‘real dance’. However, when children play through dance, they are fulfilling their need for learning and for movement.

Dance Play

What is play and how do we ‘dance play’?

When we talk about play, we are describing children being engaged in activities that are self-chosen, self-directed, and finished when they choose to be finished.  It is about children interacting with the environment around them.

With dance play, children are offered ways to explore movement, through creative stimulus, and teacher/child co created performance.  The dance improvisation lends itself to true play.

Sometimes the dance play can begin with a question that arises through play.  The dance play may help solve the problem and as a result support the discovery.

In play a child always performs above his average age, above his daily behaviour: in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.  Vygostsky (1978)

How do we create an environment that encourages children to dance play?

Susan Wright and Jan Deans in their book, Dance -Play and Drawing- Telling as Semiotic Tools for Young Children’s Leaning talk about the ‘dance studio’ as imagined by Reggio Emilia.  They see it as ‘an empty canvas on which the children can create ‘moving body pictures’ that are enhanced by colourful fabric and objects and are accompanied by uplifting sound-scapes’.

The dance space is an important element in inviting children to dance and move.  There must be room to move, and a range of sensory material for children to choose as stimulus.  The ‘everyone get a scarf’ activities can result in a one size fits all approach to dance and creative movement.

On the other hand, offering a range of stimulus, so children can choose from a range of sensory textures, privileges the child.  It allows their own curiosity to lead the movement.

Stimulus can provoke wonder but also mediative thoughtfulness.  The range of dynamics used in movement exploration is not limited to the fast and the furious.

Dance Play Ideas

Include piles of cushions, small bean bags, balloons, balls, ribbon sticks, fabric (heavy and light), in your play space for easy access.

Use things from the natural world are inspiring for children’s movement:

A bowl of flowers floating in a bowl.  What patterns do they make?  How fast are they moving?

Sea shells – to feel and hear.

Collect different shaped leaves and see how they fall from different heights.  What pathways did they make to the ground?  Curved, straight, zigzag, twirling floating?

dance play

Blowing bubbles is a good way to start children exploring controlling their bodies. Floating through space, smooth, sustaining movements inspired by the journey of the bubbles.  How will they show the contrast of the bursting bubbles?


Curating the dance space

The teacher curates the space to encourage creative movement, rather than directing the dance.  Then the teacher, as dancer, responds to the dance play as co-creators and collaborators.

Setting up the space with sensory objects like windchimes, for mindful listening moments, as well as music, give children the opportunities observe and respond to the sounds around them.  They identify different rhythms and moods.

Engaging physically, through drumming or percussive explorations, gets their body moving.  This could take the form of clapping games, stamping, foot tapping or really any kind of percussive movement.

Try foot stamping or tapping on different surfaces to find the best sound for their drumming.

The dance space also needs to reflect the community in which the children are centred.  How does the dance space celebrate the values, traditions of your community?

Dance Play

What is the role of the teacher?

Here are some ideas I have found useful when leading my four year old grandson over the last few years. (And in the last 30 years of teaching!)

1. Feel like you are taking their hand and going for a walk.

2. Be present

3. Mindfulness – widen the gap between impulse and action

4. Give them space to explore their own movement.

5. Resist talking

6. Move more

7. Feel more

8. Listen more

9. Have more personal joy in movement

Reflect on how their body feels as they breath, as they get breathless, as they find balance and as they give in to gravity.

What language is central to this environment?  The language of movement, play and exploration.  Don’t feel you have to put a label on everything.

How will the children tell us what they have learned?

The dance space is like a hothouse that nurtures expression, ideas, attitudes, and culture in the learning environment.  It also reflects many things about the children who create in it.

If you listen and observe you know what the children are learning!

Movement primes the brain for learning.                                                            Samara Gupta sparked.in


Basso, Julia, Satyal, Medha,  and Rugh, Rachel. (2021). Dance on the Brain: Enhancing Intra- and Inter- Brain Synchrony. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Jan 7, 2021.

Dean, Jan and Wright, Susan. (2018) Dance-Play and Drawing-Telling as Semiotic Tools for Young Children’s Learning, Routlege.

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