There is an alert on my phone that goes off each Friday at 11:50am. The alert reads as such:
If that alert reflected my reality, however, it would read:
“TIME TO PLAY!!! (and teach ballet) 12:00-1:15”
Anyone who has taught young kids ballet (or anything, for that matter) can likely relate to this. By the end of the class period you have exhausted your play energy and you crave to either teach some older students or go take a nap. Many times you get neither. What you get are more little ones coming at you for ballet class. <Time to play again! (and teach ballet)>
It really is so true that the younger the kids, the more play time they need. Play is how they learn. Play is how they interact with and process the world around them. Play is what they can relate to. Play is their world. Play is their work! And they take it seriously, as should we.
But this is not news for most everyone. Plenty of studies have demonstrated how important play is for the little ones. I don’t feel inclined to repeat all that information. It is easily accessible through a simple search online. My intention is to demonstrate how we can use play in ballet class as a way to teach the fundamentals of dance, while conducting an orderly class.
Early on in my teaching career, I mistakenly believed that playing and learning needed to be kept separate. Play a little, learn a little, play a little, learn a little, etc. This approach did work. I ended the year with kids who knew stuff. They were successful on stage. They had enjoyed ballet. It was overall a productive time. However, I found I was needing to put a lot of effort into motivating them when it came to the learning portions of class. They had all the motivation that exists in the universe when it was time to play (freeze dance, choo choo, jumping over the moon, etc). I wanted to see that motivation when it was time for them to focus on learning.
I made a choice to integrate play into some of the more structured exercises. I saw immediate results and knew that, for me, the choice was obvious: turn the entire class into play. Play that teaches. Play that teaches all the things I wanted them to learn. But I wasn’t sure how to do that. It took a ton of creativity and thinking outside the box. Basically, it required me to be a little kid again (while remembering what my teacher goals were for them).
Here are some ways I now integrate play into class time:
1) Everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING, has a story.
This is one way I get my five year olds to practice the foot positions 1st, 2nd, and 3rd:
Once Upon A Time
Set up the dance with their feet being books. Their books are closed (parallel). When the legs open to first, it’s the book opening to read the story. Add information about the story to each movement, then close the book at the end of the story. For example:
“Once upon a time” — Legs open to first.
“There was a banana.” — Legs move to second.
“The banana went rollerskating.” — Legs move back to first.
“The End!” — Legs close back to parallel (as though you are closing the book)
*Once they understand the game you can allow them to make up the story. The crazier the story, the more fun. The more fun, the more learning. Magic!
2) Focus on the fun.
It can be scary because there is that fear that you won’t be able to get the ballet back and it can feel as though you aren’t doing your job (trust me, you are totally doing your job), but for a moment try to not worry about teaching them ballet. Simply enjoy the fun. This is an excellent way to build your connection with them. Here is one way I choose to focus on fun:
We have a baby bird dance we do. It has a whole story to it. They love it. The point of the dance is to teach gentle port de bras. So, we move through the dance and all is well. It ends with the baby birds in their nests sleeping. All is calm. This could be the end and we could move on. Instead, I yell out, “EAT WORMS!!!!”, and then I throw imaginary worms for them to gobble up. It is hysterical. And for about one solid minute there is pure chaos (loud chaos) happening. If they are not amused at worms you can throw yummy things at them like candy or strawberries. But if they are up for it, go with worms because it is sillier and sillier is almost always better.
Make the “in between” an adventure.
The dreaded “in between”. You know, those times when the students are moving from one place to another or when you are going to turn on the music or it is time for them to change into tap shoes. These are prime times for teachers to lose control over the class and everything to suddenly take a turn down disaster lane. Here are some ways I make this into an adventure:
“Move To Your Spot Like A. . .” I then give them an animal or some other item to move like (no voices aloud). “Move to your center spots like a fish/robot/star/giraffe/etc”. They love this.
“When I Turn Around You Will Be. . .” I tell them, “I am walking to turn the music on now and I can’t see you. When I turn around you will be…(scared/a marshmallow/a giant/etc)” Be sure they know these are all frozen positions (no movement and no voices aloud). This keeps them on their spots and focused on you (not their neighbor).
“Let’s All Try To. . .” When they are changing shoes I will sometimes say, “Let’s all try to talk without using our voices this time” or “Let’s all try to pretend like we are silently racing this time” or “Let’s all try to be sneaky this time”. It focuses them in on the task at hand, keeps them from running about, and allows everyone to do the same thing yet in their own way.
These are but a few play items I incorporate into class. Perhaps they might kickstart some of your own ideas. Playing is of utmost importance for the littles and they can tell when you are more focused on teaching ballet as opposed to connecting and inspiring them to learn. At the end of day, maybe the best thing we can do for our young students is to drop our adulting and immerse ourselves in play. It is exhausting, loads of fun, lots of work, and vitally important. So, go play! (and teach ballet)
- My Personal Secrets for Teaching Littles
- Teaching Ballet Really Isn’t About Ballet at All
- Where Did Their Brains Go?
- How Much Should We Expect?