Parenting Solutions: Introducing Children to Culture and the Arts

Dance, music, and art are the foundation of a child’s cultural education, and experts say “no age is too young” to begin acquiring their lifelong benefits.

On Saturday mornings, 3-year-old Emily Randolph goes to ballet class in Hoboken, N.J. The tots gathered here aren’t trying to perfect their pliés just yet. They’re exploring movement as a way to express themselves while also learning the most basic of ballet technique.

Dance: three forms of fitness

John-Mario Sevilla, director of education for the New York City Ballet from 2004 to 2007, says children ages 6 to 11 are the “best dancers of their lives, because they don’t know they’re dancing.” Younger children are usually more open, free to move, and less self-conscious than they may be when they get older.

Sevilla understands that many parents hesitate to enroll their sons in dance class, but he emphasizes that most boys are already dancing anyway, while enjoying their everyday activities of running, jumping, turning, and simply moving in space.

Dance provides children an outlet for physical activity and improves their coordination and discipline. It gives them an opportunity to express themselves without words and minus the pressure to “get it right.”

With its unique qualities of being both art and sport, dance includes all three aspects of fitness — strength, endurance, and flexibility. It enhances children’s motor skills and helps develop spatial awareness.

Encourage your child to dance to a variety of music types — pop, classical, folk — in addition to others from around the world.

Emily’s mom, Kate Randolph, observes the 45-minute ballet sessions and sees pure joy in her child’s face. “It’s one of the biggest benefits of the class,” she says, in addition to Emily’s growing self-confidence and healthy camaraderie with classmates.

Music: structure and reflection

Joan McConnell’s three sons in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., either play a musical instrument or perform by singing. Kyle, 12, has been playing trombone in the school band for three years. Spencer, 8, and Connor, 5, both sing in the school chorus.

McConnell says, “It’s an outlet for their energy, and it has helped them maintain good grades by providing the discipline to study and practice every day.”

McConnell says she sees that her boys “appreciate the music and respect it.” And that includes her youngest, Connor, who sings in the chorus once a week with classmates.

“Their [chorus members’] attention span is amazing,” McConnell says. “They really do focus. You’d think they would be running around like 5-year-olds, but they’re not!”

Directors of the New York Philharmonic believe classical music is an important cultural experience in children’s lives. The symphony orchestra’s Young People’s Concerts (made famous by the late legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein) have spawned a series of Very Young People’s Concerts. These musical programs are for children 3 to 5 years old, while the Young People’s Concerts are for children ages 6 to 12 and their families.

The Philharmonic’s education director, Theodore Wiprud, says music allows children to “step out of the fast pace of experience that comes with video games … to find a calmer reflection of being.”

Wiprud, an Eagle Scout from Troop 255 in Chevy Chase, Md., believes “music at every age is a terrific mental experience…and kids who participate in school music programs are the kids who score best on standardized math and literacy tests.”

Art: developing critical thinking

When it comes to great art, children are keen observers, according to John Welch, who is in charge of youth programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Welch says that, at ages 5 to 10, children are especially “attracted to contemporary art, because of its abstract shapes, color, and size.”

“While adults and adolescents may be hesitant to discuss art, children want to tell you their reaction to the art,” Welch says. “It’s an important step in the cognitive development process and a wonderful teachable moment.”

On a recent Sunday, Millie and Gregory Lopez of Dover, N.J., were in the Met’s Great Hall, on their third visit with sons Piero, 6, and Alejandro, 5. The Lopezes began bringing their sons to the museum when the boys were just 4 and 3.

On this visit, Piero and Alejandro are excited, animated, and anxious to enter the galleries. Piero says he “likes paintings.” His mother adds that the boys are fond of the Met’s Impressionist collection because of the art’s bright colors.

The arts close to home

You don’t have to live in New York City, Chicago, or San Francisco to take advantage of children’s arts programs.

John-Mario Sevilla, formerly of the New York City Ballet, says most towns have a dance studio. He adds that most children find plenty of opportunities for dance at school and at parties.

Theodore Wiprud of the New York Philharmonic encourages children to play an instrument or sing in school music programs. “Church programs are also a fantastic way to get involved in music,” he says.

For art appreciation, visit a museum in your area, but if there isn’t one, John Welch of the Metropolitan Museum says to observe the world around you.

“When you are walking down the street, you’ll see decorative motifs in architecture that are present in paintings and other visual art. Make the connections. Art is all around us, in museums, as well as the world in which we live.”

Introducing children to music, dance, and art at a young age will not only broaden their horizons but will also forge lives enriched through creativity, imagination, and unique personal development.

Freelance writer Cynthia Wallace also wrote the Family Talk column “Helping Children Stay Smart and Safe on Social Networks” in Scouting’s January-February issue. You can read it on the magazine Web site at www.scoutingmagazine.org/issues/0701/d-famt.html.

Music, Art, and Cultural Resources on the Web

Museums, dance groups, and orchestras across the country have Web sites with fun and educational activities for children. Visit these kid-friendly sites of some of our nation’s cultural icons:

• Metropolitan Museum of Art: www.metmuseum.org. Enter and click “Museumkids.” Online activities include “How Van Gogh Made His Mark,” which teaches children about the artist’s life and work and then provides an online sketching experience.

• New York City Ballet: www.nycballet.com. Under “Kids and Families,” click “Ballet Is for Kids.” Among the fun things you’ll find are the “New York City Ballet Coloring Book” with pictures of costumed dancers that designers-to-be can color. There is also “By George,” a game about words and teachings of choreographer George Balanchine.

• New York Philharmonic: www.nyphil.org. Under “Education,” click “Kidzone,” where you’ll find games, descriptions of instruments, introductions to musicians and conductors, and a composition workshop.

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