Pursuing creative endeavors, such as the arts, music, and dance, feeds our spirits and nourishes our lives. Yet much of our formal education is taken up with logic and rational thought. For example, the way children memorize vocabulary, mathematical equations, even the capitals of each state utilizes left hemisphere of the brain. And yet the right-brained activities are what enthrall pre-verbal children: the contrast of black and white that a newborn sees, the music to which a baby wiggles his fingers and toes and the grandmother’s lullaby that soothes a crying infant.
A line in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books reads, “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” That quote can be said about a parents’ love for their newborn but also about a toddler’s love of music, singing, dancing and bright hues as they scribble, color and finger-paint.
Much of our early arts education isn’t intentional education; we as parent-educators are doing what comes to us naturally. Alyssa Herzog Melby, director of education and community engagement for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says, “Your kids can’t be too young to introduce them to the arts. From the moment babies are born and in our arms, we sing songs and dance and move with them. We show them pictures in books and make animal noises. Birth to age five kids are sponges; it is great to get them out in the world looking at things.”
THE ARTS: MUSIC
Suzanne Perrino, senior vice president of education and strategic implementation at the Pittsburgh Symphony, echoes Herzog Melby’s comments: “The best time to introduce music to your child is as early as possible, preferably before the child is born.” When a mother reads or sings to her baby in utero, the baby hears the sounds partially through bone conduction.
Dr. Henry Truby, Emeritus Professor of Pediatrics and Linguistics at the University of Miami, said that after the sixth month, the fetus moves in rhythm to the mother’s speech.
Finnish researchers at the University of Helsinki published a study in 2018 involving pregnant women whose in utero babies listened to a one-minute CD of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” for five weeks, an average of 170 times. Then at birth and at four months the researchers did EEG tests as the children listened to the original tune and a slightly altered version. The children who heard the music (as opposed to a control group who did not) had a larger response to the melody, which only proves, according to the lead research Eino Partanen, “A baby can be relaxed and soothed by melodies it hears before birth.”
According to an article titled “Importance of Prenatal Sound and Music” by music therapist Giselle E. Whitwell, “Women all over the world have sung lullabies to their babies. These were very important because as we now know the fetus is having first language lessons in the womb. The inflections of the mother tongue are conveyed not only through speech, but most importantly through song.” So those silly little songs we sing like The Wheels on the Bus, Frére Jacques, and Row, Row Your Boat are actually teaching language skills.
THE ARTS: DANCE
Getting kids to imitate animals and move their bodies in space to music (and to follow directions) improves gross motor skills. This is why dance schools enroll toddlers and preschoolers. It isn’t to teach them formal ballet technique but to build a motor skill progression in a specific sequence. And these motor skills that are developed are then used in some many other areas of the child’s life: like riding bikes, running, climbing, and participating in a range of sports.
But if you are unsure how to engage your child(ren) in how to move, the National Endowment for the Arts gives these tips on their website on how to engage children in dance:
- Encourage your child to be aware of his or her motor experiences. Ask questions such as: “How many different ways can you move your head (arms, legs, shoulders, hips, etc.)? How many ways can you balance yourself besides standing?” Questions like these will help your child become aware of his or her body and its relationship to other people and the environment.
- Provide a place and time for your child to explore movement. Do this together. Make up stories by acting them out with body movement. Move with different types of imagined walks (downhill, in thick mud, on hot coals) or pretend to use roller skates, ice skates, a skate board, a bicycle, or a horse.
- Practice movement as it relates to music or rhythm: clapping, marching, rocking, or hopping to music or a rhythmic beat. Move rhythmically holding your child or holding hands for an enjoyable experience together.
- Experiment with basic movements, such as walking, running, jumping, and skipping. By varying the size, tempo, level, and direction of these basics, you teach how to sequence and pattern movements into dances.
- Create a movement “box” containing objects that inspire movement possibilities. For instance: elastics that the child can stretch and move by holding the ends; scarves for swinging and floating; crepe paper streamers for swirling; balls for bouncing and rolling; bells on a wrist or ankle band for rhythms.
- Take your children to see all styles and forms of dance. Young children are often entranced by dance performances. Be aware, however, that very young children have short attention spans and will lose focus if sitting too far away. Remember, too, to pick a performance that is appropriate for the age and interest of your child.
- Read children’s books that introduce dance in meaningful contexts. For example, Degas and the Little Dancer by Laurence Anholt tells the story of the young ballerina who posed for Degas as he sculpted.
You can also introduce your child to art by taking them to a museum or art gallery and by asking them questions about what they are seeing. Then when you leave, do hands-on activities and continue the creativity and learning when you are at home. Stock your house with paints and paper, brushes, crayons, markers, pens, pencils and erasers, modeling clay and Play-Doh, scraps of cloth and colored paper, and all other means and modes of creating. You can use Red Arts activities for kids based on the works on thirty great artists to come up with creative ideas if your child runs out of his or her own. Ask questions of your kids about what they saw.
Encourage your child to pursue any kind of art he or she wants. California Lieutenant Governor and parent of three Gavin Newsom said, “An arts education helps build academic skills and increase academic performance, while also providing alternative opportunities to reward the skills of children who learn differently.” And like the rest of our education, arts education starts at home with that first song that we sing or book that we read to our baby before they are born.
The beauty of art does not only lie in its aesthetics and creativity. Art has been called the knocking of the soul, a way to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time, a gift to the world and literacy of the heart. British actor Sir Richard Eyre explained arts’ importance this way, “Change begins with understanding and understanding begins by identifying oneself with another person: in a word, empathy. The arts enable us to put ourselves in the minds, eyes, ears and hearts of other human beings.” And that is the best reason for parents, guardians, and teachers to introduce their children to the arts in all of its many forms.