What Young Children Can Do | Annie Harrison Elliot

This is the third post in our January series around how perceptions of who can and can’t make art affect their teaching practice. Enjoy! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor

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I teach young kids, but at some point I realized my assumptions were getting in the way. The reason I teach very young children in the first place is because I believe strongly in their capabilities and creativity, but at the same time their age was limiting how I was thinking about teaching them. Once I adjusted my thinking from “what are they too young to do,” to “what they can do,” my teaching process became much more fulfilling.

I decided to challenge myself by encouraging my three year old drama students to participate in a scene or at least a “scene-like-structure.” I racked my brain on how to approach this in the classroom. “Are they too young for scene work?” I wondered. In the traditional way, yes. A 3 year old is not going to do a scene analysis of Romeo and Juliet. I thought about how we had begun our dramatic learning earlier in the session with one-word story circle with pass the sound games, and by acting out fairytales and fables as a group. Through these games, they had begun to understand (at their learning level) concepts of beginning, middle, and end, as well as narrative structure. I felt we were making progress, but I also felt like somehow they could be doing more. I needed to ask myself again, “What can they do?”

In order to create a scene-like-structure, I decided to bring in two non-working cell phones to drama class. I set up two chairs in the stage area of the classroom and the students took turns being the audience and the actors. The students who were the audience decided on what character each actor should be, starting with “mommy,” “daddy,” “grandma,” or the “family pet.” Then we decided that “mommy” would call “daddy” on the phone and talk about ______________. I would invite the students to come up with the topic of discussion and fill in the blank. Then the two actors would call each other on the “phone” and voila! An improvised scene! The concreteness and familiarity of the phone -call served as an effective vehicle to introduce the concept of dialogue. Each of the students had previously witnessed their parents and other adults having conversations on the phone, so they could actually utilize their “own experience” to make a scene. This allowed them to translate their own powers of observation about the world into an art form.

Over the next few weeks, I gradually took away the cell phones and, over time, the students started creating more complex scenes with a wider variety of characters and topics.

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I now apply the same approach to my dance classes for the very young. Once I changed my thinking from “what are they too young to do” to “what they can do,” I noticed more gains in my student’s creative abilities. For example, we turned a game of freeze dance into a choreographic exercise. Every time the students froze I would give them a new instruction such as, “freeze in the shape of a triangle,” or “freeze down low or up high” or other directives such as “when you freeze find a friend.”

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Once we did this for a while, I gradually pulled back, and found they were able to start making shapes and choices on their own. They were starting to grasp choreographic process at age 3. Now, if I ever catch myself thinking, “What are they too young to do” I pause and remember these important lessons I’ve learned as a teaching artist. “No, they are never too young..” 

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