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Using Dance and Creative Movement to Enhance Learning in the Outdoor Classroom

The Arts

"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."

-Susan Griss, Elementary Education Dance Integration Specialist

Creative movement is a vastly underutilized instructional tool in the traditional classroom, but perhaps even more so in the outdoor classroom. Creative movement allows students to experience the concepts they are learning and challenges them to express their ideas in new ways. It provides opportunities for students to engage different parts of their brains during the school day and provides much needed reprieve from traditional sit-and-learn activities.

Supporting your objectives with dance

As with any other lesson you teach, planning to integrate creative movement should begin with a clear learning objective for your students. Once you have defined what you hope the students will learn or be able to do as a result of the lesson, you can determine the most appropriate way to utilize creative movement to support your objectives. You can use dance to assess student learning, introduce new content, reinforce content, address different learning styles, and to reflect on and synthesize multiple concepts and ideas already explored.  While planning your lesson, be sure that you are using creative movement effectively- that is, the dance component of your lesson should enrich the lesson and enhance your students' learning. You should be able to explain to your students (and yourself) why you have chosen to use creative movement in this particular lesson  and why the dance component is integral to the students' learning and communication of their own ideas. 

Consider the setting

Some people may think that a dance lesson belongs in an indoor room filled with mirrors, barres, and hardwood flooring; however, the outdoors can be an inspiring and lower-stress environment, particularly for students who are just beginning to explore dance and creative movement.  You do need to carefully consider which locations in your outdoor classroom will be most conducive to learning through dance but keep in mind that by using your imagination with your students, almost any space in nature can be transformed into a stage for performance. Choose a space that will not strictly limit how and where students can move and explicitly state the safety expectations for practicing creative movement in the outdoors.

Consider the time

While planning your dance lesson, it will benefit you and your students to carefully consider the time of day the lesson will take place. What will you be doing before the lesson? What do you have planned for after the lesson? Will the students be hungry and distracted? Or will they be overstuffed and sluggish just after lunch? Think about how you can best utilize the timing of your lesson to ensure maximum engagement from your students while also reaping the benefits of creating energized brains and bodies for the lessons that follow. Be intentional about the time you will allow students to work on their piece and state clear expectations accordingly.

Implementing the lesson

Simply telling your students to "make a dance about decomposers" is insufficient and will likely be met with many confused looks and exasperated sighs. Instead, begin by introducing some of the basic concepts and skills that are integral to dance (see http://alaskacreativedance.com/danceconcepts.htm for terms and definitions) and have the students warm-up by practicing making movements using a variety of elements and concepts. When it is the students' turn to compose their own piece, remind them of the concepts they should consider and provide them with a "toolbox" of dance elements for quick reference (i.e. write some of the elements and concepts practiced on a whiteboard or piece of butcher paper). If they get stuck, you can then challenge them by saying "I've noticed a lot of high-level movements with smooth energy in your piece. I wonder if you can include any low-level movements with a different kind of energy. Which of your ideas would work well with that combination?" Just as you would during other instructional strategies, push your students and modify the level of difficulty to provide an appropriate level of challenge not only within the content being explored, but with the creative movement experience as well.

Ideas to get you started

  • Students demonstrate what they have learned about a particular plant by creating a "Plant Dance." (lesson by Jenna Catsos)
  • Students write a 5-line cinquain poem (1st line: subject of poem, 2nd line: two adjectives describing the subject, 3rd line: three verbs related to the subject, 4th line: phrase or sentence about the subject, 5th line: synonym, example, or restatement of the subject) and work with a group to create movements that represent each of the words in the poem. For example, students compose poems and dances about a natural process such as erosion or an ecosystem component such as herbivores. (Adapted from Lou Fish-Sadin)
  • Students explore how movement is used to communicate in nature (i.e. honeybee waggle dance, avian courtship dances, defensive body movements in invertebrates).
  • Students use creative movement to demonstrate their understanding of the connection between form and function in morphology or the relationship between species' adaptations and their environments/niches. For example, ask the students: "Show me a body that is adapted for benthic feeding."
  • The teacher/instructor choreographs a dance or series of movements that can be used to help students learn, understand, and remember a process or cycle. This can be especially effective if you have the students collaborate with you to design the dance. For example, create a dance about the salmon life cycle or the process of photosynthesis. You can even add on to the dance as the students' understanding deepens and progresses.

Be wary of oversimplifying some concepts to make them fit well to the dance medium- remember that the purpose of integrating creative movement is to enrich the students' learning and therefore it should not contribute to or reinforce any alternative conceptions they may have. 

"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."

-Susan Griss, Elementary Education Dance Integration Specialist

Creative movement is a vastly underutilized instructional tool in the traditional classroom, but perhaps even more so in the outdoor classroom. Creative movement allows students to experience the concepts they are learning and challenges them to express their ideas in new ways. It provides opportunities for students to engage different parts of their brains during the school day and provides much needed reprieve from traditional sit-and-learn activities.

Supporting your objectives with dance

As with any other lesson you teach, planning to integrate creative movement should begin with a clear learning objective for your students. Once you have defined what you hope the students will learn or be able to do as a result of the lesson, you can determine the most appropriate way to utilize creative movement to support your objectives. You can use dance to assess student learning, introduce new content, reinforce content, address different learning styles, and to reflect on and synthesize multiple concepts and ideas already explored.  While planning your lesson, be sure that you are using creative movement effectively- that is, the dance component of your lesson should enrich the lesson and enhance your students' learning. You should be able to explain to your students (and yourself) why you have chosen to use creative movement in this particular lesson  and why the dance component is integral to the students' learning and communication of their own ideas. 

Consider the setting

Some people may think that a dance lesson belongs in an indoor room filled with mirrors, barres, and hardwood flooring; however, the outdoors can be an inspiring and lower-stress environment, particularly for students who are just beginning to explore dance and creative movement.  You do need to carefully consider which locations in your outdoor classroom will be most conducive to learning through dance but keep in mind that by using your imagination with your students, almost any space in nature can be transformed into a stage for performance. Choose a space that will not strictly limit how and where students can move and explicitly state the safety expectations for practicing creative movement in the outdoors.

Consider the time

While planning your dance lesson, it will benefit you and your students to carefully consider the time of day the lesson will take place. What will you be doing before the lesson? What do you have planned for after the lesson? Will the students be hungry and distracted? Or will they be overstuffed and sluggish just after lunch? Think about how you can best utilize the timing of your lesson to ensure maximum engagement from your students while also reaping the benefits of creating energized brains and bodies for the lessons that follow. Be intentional about the time you will allow students to work on their piece and state clear expectations accordingly.

Implementing the lesson

Simply telling your students to "make a dance about decomposers" is insufficient and will likely be met with many confused looks and exasperated sighs. Instead, begin by introducing some of the basic concepts and skills that are integral to dance (see http://alaskacreativedance.com/danceconcepts.htm for terms and definitions) and have the students warm-up by practicing making movements using a variety of elements and concepts. When it is the students' turn to compose their own piece, remind them of the concepts they should consider and provide them with a "toolbox" of dance elements for quick reference (i.e. write some of the elements and concepts practiced on a whiteboard or piece of butcher paper). If they get stuck, you can then challenge them by saying "I've noticed a lot of high-level movements with smooth energy in your piece. I wonder if you can include any low-level movements with a different kind of energy. Which of your ideas would work well with that combination?" Just as you would during other instructional strategies, push your students and modify the level of difficulty to provide an appropriate level of challenge not only within the content being explored, but with the creative movement experience as well.

Ideas to get you started

  • Students demonstrate what they have learned about a particular plant by creating a "Plant Dance." (lesson by Jenna Catsos)
  • Students write a 5-line cinquain poem (1st line: subject of poem, 2nd line: two adjectives describing the subject, 3rd line: three verbs related to the subject, 4th line: phrase or sentence about the subject, 5th line: synonym, example, or restatement of the subject) and work with a group to create movements that represent each of the words in the poem. For example, students compose poems and dances about a natural process such as erosion or an ecosystem component such as herbivores. (Adapted from Lou Fish-Sadin)
  • Students explore how movement is used to communicate in nature (i.e. honeybee waggle dance, avian courtship dances, defensive body movements in invertebrates).
  • Students use creative movement to demonstrate their understanding of the connection between form and function in morphology or the relationship between species' adaptations and their environments/niches. For example, ask the students: "Show me a body that is adapted for benthic feeding."
  • The teacher/instructor choreographs a dance or series of movements that can be used to help students learn, understand, and remember a process or cycle. This can be especially effective if you have the students collaborate with you to design the dance. For example, create a dance about the salmon life cycle or the process of photosynthesis. You can even add on to the dance as the students' understanding deepens and progresses.

Be wary of oversimplifying some concepts to make them fit well to the dance medium- remember that the purpose of integrating creative movement is to enrich the students' learning and therefore it should not contribute to or reinforce any alternative conceptions they may have. 

About the Author
Bailey Craig
Author: Bailey Craig