Teaching Tips

Why Is Dance Good for My Toddler?

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It's no trade secret that dance is excellent for physical, mental and emotional health. However, there are specific developmental milestones that make it all the more valuable to young children. Whether it's fostering their independence or helping them to develop motor skills, dance can help support children's growth in myriad ways.

At Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley California, childhood development is at the forefront of dance pedagogy. Instead of teaching traditional techniques like ballet or modern, Luna teachers lead developmentally oriented creative movement classes that emphasize play, improvisation and composition for dancers ages 0 to 17.

Luna teaching artist Aiano Nakagawa specializes in early childhood education, teaching a range of classes for children ages 0 to 7. Here, she shares what is going on for 0- to 5-year-olds developmentally and why dance is such an asset to this age group.

Dance Teacher: What are some of the major physical milestones that children reach during their first five years?

Aiano Nakagawa: Between 4 and 11 months they begin to explore outside of the primary caregiver orbit. Once they develop that secure attachment, they can begin to push away from their parent and explore towards and away. Between 10 and 18 months, typically developing children start walking independently. That's really when the power stuff starts coming in—running, climbing and beginning to test limits. They begin balancing and trying to explore new spaces. For 1 1/2- to 2-year-olds, we say that "They're on the go!" They can do different locomotor skills like crawling, running or sliding. Around 4 years old, typically developing children should be able to stop their bodies. Before then, it's not a realistic expectation that they'll stop immediately and actually be frozen.

DT: What are a few of the mental milestones that they reach from 0 to 5?

AN: From 15 months to 3 years, the sense of self arrives. At Luna we say, "3 is all about me." They're very egocentric, which is totally normal and developmentally appropriate for them. I love working in early childhood education, because 80 percent of the brain develops by the time they're 3. Three years old is the first time that they're really coming into themselves as individuals and can differentiate from their parents. By 4, it's about power—things like running, kicking and punching. They really embody their play and become whatever they are pretending to be.

DT: How can dance support physical, mental and emotional development during early childhood?

AN: I think, like anything, dance can be used as a tool of liberation or oppression. I think offering an opportunity where children can be free and follow their natural inclinations is incredibly valuable. The brain and the body know what we need to survive and develop. It's socially imposed things that limit our development. I have found that my 3-year-olds are some of the most creative people I've come across, because they haven't been told yet that their ideas aren't worthy. The older they get, the more hesitation I see in the risks they're willing to take. Having an opportunity for freedom and connecting to the body is really important for building confidence and nurturing creativity. Having opportunities where children can indulge in where they are developmentally is super-important for their bodies and brains and socially.

DT: How does knowledge of childhood development serve your own teaching?

AN: As a dance educator, knowing where children are at can really support how you engage them. For example, if I'm asking my 3-year-olds to do something at the same time, and they're not feeling seen, there is a higher likelihood that they're not going to engage, because it's not within their zone of proximal development. So, in my 3-year-old class, we do a lot of solos. I believe that children will cultivate the experience that they need from a dance class. I think that's a big part of being child-centered—asking them what they know and recognizing that they have a wealth of knowledge as well.

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