The dance classroom is an incubator of creative thinking and artistic action taking. At it’s best, it nurtures students creatively and supports students’ personal energetic engagement in asking questions and finding answers to them.
But what about our students’ emotional safety when exploring the vistas of the arts classroom? If we are asking our students to take artistic risks, then we should support their investigations. This can be achieved through building a classroom environment that promotes divergent and convergent learning.
How do we create this safe space for creativity?
Safe from What?
For creativity to flourish, it needs a socially supportive atmosphere. A place where students are safe from judgement with no right or wrong answers. The ideal dance classroom has room to make mistakes, self-correct and edit.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, states that in our lives we are often monitoring how we look to other people. This may make us self-aware and anxious. But if we are truly engaged in an activity, we are less likely to be self-conscious and protecting the ego.
Designing dance activities that engage students, providing challenge while considering the students’ skill level, enables the class to enjoy the creative process. They become so engrossed in the discovery, that time disappears along with their self-consciousness. There is nothing better than hearing students complain that they can’t believe the time went so fast!
However, in this dance classroom students should have time to make decisions and question. They need time to change their minds about what they perceive, think, believe, and understand. A space where they can be their authentic selves without fear of ridicule, judgement, or disapproval.
Time and the creative process
Many learning activities are influenced by time efficiency and productivity. Mainly because these factors are valued both in the school environment and the commercial environment. However, creative works’ value is often not known instantly.
The creative process is frequently about a series of explorations sparked by curiosity and connected by seemly unconnected knowledge or skills.
Education processes and business depend on reinvention. Learning needs the time to think and the questions that creativity-based activities bring into the classroom.
Rather than triaging learning activities, deciding what will give the swiftest and greatest results in the shortest amount of time, teachers need time to sit and think about what they and their students really care about.
What is creativity?
Amy Whittaker, author of Art Thinking, believes that creativity is not just moving on a continuum from point A to point B. It’s inventing a new point B. Creativity is about exploring ideas that are yet to be tested and investigating the unknown.
The ‘wouldn’t it be good if’ questions are important ones for creating solutions to problems that children genuinely care about. The big questions about their lives and how they connect with the world, require creative inquiry processes. Learning activities with more complex questions and less simple answers.
The dance classroom should be flexible enough to provide a safe space for children to engage in a rigorous creative process. A process that is not without parameters, while still managing risk but flexible enough to investigate with freedom.
Navigating this kind of messy, noisy, and complex classroom environment takes agility on the part of the teacher and a certain willingness to embrace interdisciplinary practice.
For students, they need to be fully engaged, independent thinkers and willing collaborators to effectively develop creativity. Many of the learning activities in the dance classroom will support them developing these skills.
The teacher’s role
Teachers should not see a conflict between either being process driven or outcome driven. Not achieving milestones within projects may be viewed as learning experiences rather than failures. Anyone who has done a PHD will have experienced times of disorganisation, disillusionment, and disorientation before the ideas shape themselves into a coherent whole and success is achieved.
However, the time limits and parameters of a project are important to students determining what is working without continually looking for what will make it better. This becomes the role of the reflective activities of the students at the completion of a project that should be a large part of a collaborative assessment process with their teacher.
The teacher’s role in mentoring young artists to strengthen and evaluate ideas, and to decide on a course of action to implement their ideas, is an essential part of teaching creativity. Modelling ways to use stimulus or creating joint projects with the teacher or with peers are other strategies that support creativity through teacher mentorship.
Building a dance space for creativity
Here are some things you may like to consider as you set up your dance classroom this year.
Is your space made for dance exploration?
Does it have adequate space to explore a range of movement ideas or do you need to use an alternate room or outdoor space for some activities?
Perhaps you can reorient the space so that it is perceived as being larger than it actually is. Trick the eye into seeing space much as you do when you set up your furniture at home.
Does it inspire children to create?
The space may need to be more neutral, even sparse for certain activities to allow children ‘breathing room’. Overcrowded walls with too many images or remnants of costumes scattered around the room may distract or fragment student discovery.
Having everything set up before the children enter the space makes the introduction to the lesson inviting and enticing. It helps students to navigate the lesson spatially.
What have you considered as you set it up?
Curate your space as well as providing a range of stimulus material to explore. Remove things after a time and replace or collaboratively build other collections within
your classroom. Including objects from nature can connect students with the outside world even if you are exploring movement inside.
How do you want the children to use the space?
Encouraging children to use the space creatively and respectfully can be supported by arranging material in a beautiful setting so the children are drawn to them.
You may set up a reading corner with books about using colour, works of art or indigenous dance information for children who may briefly be unable to participate in the physical activities. Alternatively, the corner could be used as the ‘press corner’ where these students record and write articles about the progress of the class activities.
Does it spark curiosity and support investigation?
Include images of subjects your children may be interested in. Framed artworks by the students or famous artists work can act as stimulus material and inspire ideas.
Just as you consider use of space when choreographing a dance, placement is important. Consider the empty space between the objects in the space and the spatial relationship between each group and any furniture or walls in the room as the students explore their movement. Investigation needs room to lose your balance and play with shape of the body.
How old are your students or are you catering to a wide range of age groups?
How will this effect what you do in the classroom and how it looks? The classroom that has to engage a range of age groups should be able to be adapted easily for the next class that enters.
Particularly with older students, resources meant for younger children may prove distracting. These can act to limit their engagement with their own learning focus. In one school, my dance classes were in an after-school room. The many toys and resources proved highly distracting for the students. I changed the way we engaged with the space by facing the activities that required high focus to a less crowded part of the room.
Although not always possible with tightly timed class ‘turn arounds’, try to use containers that cover the stimulus needed in other lessons.
Further ways to support creativity
Through scaffolded learning in each class so that students are not left hanging with no direction, introducing one new concept at a time, and allowing time for exploration children are able to explore their own creativity and develop it further.
Providing examples of professional creative works (not just dance), provides examples of creativity in the wider context of ‘real life’.
By continually assessing children’s interest levels, teachers can gauge the progress of the dance activity and if the class is in what Cskikszentmihalyi would describe as ‘creative flow’.
Building a dance space that supports creativity will encourage students to immerse themselves in creative activities until it feels like play. And imaginative play is a sure-fire way to promote inquiry and investigation in the Primary classroom.
Csikszentmihalyi, M (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper/Collins.