Watertown Daily Times - 4/7/2012
Levity in literacy
Movement helps kids get ready to read
By Samantha Christian
It’s no secret: the more children are interested about a subject, the more information they will retain. The challenging part of that equation is often how to engage them in learning in the first place, especially if the ever-present crutch of television and electronic games is taken away.
Watertown-native Beth Mueller offers an alternative. Combining her background in elementary education and dance, Mueller helps young minds in the community become more receptive to learning and reading — and the only thing plugged in is creativity.
Referred to as brain dance, brain gym or educational kinesiology, this type of activity gets children physically moving and having fun in a group setting so their brains are activated and open to learning. Whereas formal education has the potential to focus primarily on the visual and the auditory and ignore the kinesthetic, getting children involved in their whole environment engrains learning in them in a different way.
Mueller currently applies these techniques to literature through book-based creative movement programs for preschoolers at the Watertown Public Library. She has worn many shoes as a dancer over the years — from choreographing high school musicals to teaching Nia fitness classes — but her passion ignites when she is barefoot and tumbling with a group of wide-eyed youngsters.
Her unique and free-flowing approach helps connect the left and right sides of the brain and stimulate movement all the way down the spine to help children be in a state of mind (and body) to learn better. The resulting experience enables the freedom of expression and is memorable, enjoyable and educational for everyone involved.
Library director Peg Checkai attributes much of the program’s success to the way Mueller interacts with the children. “She relates to the kids on their level and keeps them engaged in what’s going on,” said Checkai. “She is modeling a different kind of reading experience by incorporating movement, music and interpretation.”
During the library’s winter reading program, for example, Mueller started by having the children sit and listen to her read the book “Quick as a Cricket.” Then as a group they would come up with other animals to write down and mimic while moving to the rhythm and beat of various music.
Mueller said the children love to see their ideas come to life. “It’s like we’re creating our own story,” she said. “There are books that can tell stories, and there are people that can tell stories.”
According to Mueller, playing music or having children create the sound while dancing can also calm or energize them depending on the mood of the activity. “I think it (music) opens them to different cultures and ideas. They have to hear it first, then they have to feel it within their bodies and then they have to move to it. That’s a lot of brain work going on for them, and it’s a starting point for creativity and expressiveness with kids.”
Although preschoolers have not yet mastered reading and writing skills, Mueller alternates between activities (such as stretching, playing with balloons or bean bags, forming circles and walking in straight and curvy lines) to help them learn spatial awareness as well.
“When they move and use their hands, legs or head, they are carving a space. They are starting to get the idea of the formation of letters in a kinesthetic way instead of on paper with their hand. They’re doing it big first so that when they are ready to write, they take that into a smaller space,” said Mueller. “For the most part the kids are so cooperative because they are excited to move and be creative.”
These programs align well with the library’s goals to promote the Every Child Ready to Read five early literacy activities: talking, singing, reading, writing and playing. Parents and caregivers are also encouraged to join, giving them the opportunity to interact with their children in constructive ways and exhibit the value of literacy.
“Reading is an essential life skill … but the goal isn’t always to check a book out,” said Checkai. “It’s to foster a love of reading and to get parents and kids both excited about coming to the library for programming, and hopefully they will find a book and sit down as a family to enjoy that together at home.”
Depending on the response, Mueller may offer an additional age group to do brain dance with during the library’s “Dream Big” — themed summer reading program which begins June 4. She will also teach creative movement classes for second- through fourth-graders during summer school. Mueller is even in the visionary stage of developing an afterschool dance program with area schools in which she would talk to the teachers, find out what their curriculum is and then create lessons that reinforce what they are learning at school through movement.
“Music, art, dance, physical education or any kind of activity where kids are moving and expressing themselves is so important,” said Mueller. “I think people miss the connection of how much better kids can learn the academics if they are able to express themselves and do those creative arts. If you don’t have a healthy body, then you’re not stimulating your body which houses your mind, and you’re losing a lot of ways to learn.”