Science Class Gets Its Groove On

Three lesson plans to teach science through movement

Third-graders at Mt. Eccles Elementary School create a glacier dance.

A group of third-graders gathers in the center of the classroom, ready to learn how water cycles through precipitation, evaporation and condensation. They have no open textbooks, No. 2 pencils or notebook paper nearby. They have only their bodies as their learning tool.

With hands above their heads, the children wiggle their fingers and bring their hands in front of their faces. Suddenly, they move their arms from left to right and back above their heads. They repeat the back-and-forth motions, each time moving their arms faster and faster. This is rain in Cordova, Alaska, where they live. They then lie on the floor, propped up on their elbows, and wave their legs in the air from side to side to represent a water stream. The children go on to act out a waterfall, lake, storm front and rainbow. Within a few minutes, they have danced the complete water cycle.

In science, some concepts are easier to understand through movement. Like Marita Kleissler, who led the Mt. Eccles Elementary School students through this water dance, educators across the nation are using movement to teach scientific concepts in elementary and middle schools, and it is working. Compared to traditional lecture lessons, students grasp the concepts better, remember the lessons and think more creatively—all while having fun.

DT spoke with three educators who shared the following movement-based lessons they introduce in elementary science classrooms.

Lesson:Water cycle

Goal: To understand the sequence of the water cycle—evaporation, condensation and precipitation—by using creative and abstract thinking

Intended for: Third grade

Time needed: 35 minutes

Suggested music: “The Hunt,” by Mickey Hart

Taught by: Marita Kleissler at Prince William Sound Science Center, Cordova, AK

Lesson plan: Kleissler starts the lesson by reading the book Water Dance, by Thomas Locker, to the students and asking them to remember keywords in the water cycle: rain, stream, river, waterfall, lake, ocean, mist, cloud, storm front, thunderhead, storm and rainbow. A student is chosen to decide on a movement for rain and then the class performs the move. Another student then thinks of a movement for stream, which sequentially comes after rain in the water cycle book. They add that move to the dance and perform the sequence from the beginning with music. Each time a new movement is added, the students perform the dance from the beginning. The material is learned through repetition, which helps them remember the sequence of events.

Helpful tip: Challenge the students to use different body parts and to vary the dynamics and levels. For instance, students may show rain by wiggling their fingers in a downward motion. Then ask them to show rain with a different body part, like their heads, or to show it on a different level—perhaps sitting on the floor, and at a slower pace. The movements become abstract representations rather than miming the literal concept. This helps to ensure that the students understand the concepts and are not absentmindedly performing the actions.

Lesson: Skeleton/anatomy unit

Goal: To understand the role of the bones, muscles and joints in movement and body design, and become familiar with anatomical vocabulary

Intended for: Second grade, but can be tailored for other grades

Time needed: Two 45-minute sessions

Suggested music: “Ghosts,” by Vassilis Stenos

Taught by: Ana Nery Fragoso, at PS 315 School of Performing Arts, New York

Marita Kleissler explains the water cycle.

Lesson plan: Start with an exploration phase in which students make different shapes with their bodies. They can curl into a ball to make a round shape or twist their bodies to make a spiral, for instance. They experiment with levels by making shapes with their bodies near the ground, middle level (knees are bent) and high level (body is upright). For each shape, students are encouraged to think about the bones and the muscles and joints that hold the bones together. Then ask the students to imagine life without those joints. They should try to drink a glass of water while pretending they don’t have elbows, or try to get up from the floor without using their knees. Students can feel and see the concepts working in their bodies.

Helpful tip: Throughout the lesson, use a skeleton model to teach the students the names of the body parts and bones involved in their movements. By the end of the lesson, students should be familiar with the vocabulary, such as pelvis, spine, ribs, femur, tibia, fibula, patella, humerus, ulna, radius, scapula, clavicle and cartilage.

Lesson: Insect metamorphosis

Goal: To learn the life cycle of a honeybee

Intended for: Second grade

Time needed: 35 minutes

Suggested music: “Flight of the Bumblebee,” originally written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Taught by: Laura Egli and Joe Bins, past education major students of Nancy Joan Krattiger-Ziltener from University of Wisconsin—Madison

Lesson plan: Introduce the lesson by showing pictures of the six stages of a honeybee’s life cycle. As a class, arrange the images in the correct order: The queen lays an egg in a cell, worker bees feed food to the hatched larva, then it turns into a full-sized larva. Worker bees seal the cell off with wax, the larva transforms into a pupa and the adult bee emerges. (Place the images in a circular layout, to convey that the cycle repeats.) The teacher demonstrates that to represent an egg, the students should squat with their hands over their heads, like in a tornado drill, and tilt to the side. Verbal instructions are sufficient to lead the students through the remaining stages. For the larva stage, the students stretch, stand up halfway and pretend to nibble on food from worker bees; they raise their hands above their heads to simulate the wax sealing of the honeycomb; as they enter the pupa phase, the teacher explains that they are developing wings, a stinger and their entire body. The children put their hands behind them to show a stinger. Finally, they become adult bees and can “buzz” around while music plays and pretend to feed new larvae.

Helpful tip: This is part of a series of lessons on insect metamorphosis. It is taught after students learn the life cycle of a butterfly, which is very similar to the honeybee life cycle. Comparing and contrasting the two life cycles can help expedite and reinforce the understanding of both cycles. DT

Kasha Patel is a freelance writer pursuing a master’s degree in science journalism at Boston University.

Photos courtesy of Marita Kleissler

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If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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