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How singing, dancing, acting with young kids sets the stage for academic success

Mar 2, 2017

  The Next Idea

Get kids started at an early age with the arts and the payoff could be better math, science and literacy skills, in addition to better overall learning skills.

That’s the idea behind the Livings Arts' Detroit Wolf Trap Program. Its goal is to narrow the achievement gap between affluent and less-affluent areas through arts education.

Here’s how it works:

The program pairs professional artists – we’re talking opera singers, actors, puppeteers and more – with students (usually in Head Start classrooms) aged three months to six years old. Students participate in 16 30-minute lessons with their assigned teaching artist. At the same time, classroom teachers learn art strategies to continue using when the program ends.

A Living Arts' Detroit Wolf Trap lesson in progress.
Credit Courtesy of Susannah Goodman

Susannah Goodman, Detroit Wolf Trap program manager, said the benefit of bringing arts education to kids at such a young age is to start laying the groundwork for learning they’ll do later in life.

“Math at age three months might not seem like something that’s easy to see,” she said. “But when you recognize the importance of music in laying the cognitive groundwork for recognizing patterns, for understanding the relationship of part to whole, for building recognition of number words and symbols, it’s something that you can really start at an early age using music, using movement, using dance.”

"Last year was really conclusive in that on every single developmental domain, our students did significantly better than their peers who did not receive the program."

To begin understanding that part to whole relationship, some Wolf Trap teaching artists capitalize on the "number of the day," a learning tool many Head Start teachers use.

“One thing that the arts and Wolf Trap in particular bring to the number of the day is an embodied experience of that number,” Goodman said. “One of our dance teaching artists has a practice of having students grow from the floor to as tall as they can possibly be to the number of the day. So if the number of the day is eight, what does the number two look like in their body? What does the number four look like in their body?”

Adults would call that idea fractions, Goodman said.

“Expecting four-year-olds to understand that concept is really abstract. But this lays the groundwork for that mathematical thinking that they’ll use later in life,” she said.

Listen below for an example lesson taught by Rachel McIntosh, a Detroit Wolf Trap teaching artist. She’s also a singer with the Michigan Opera Theatre.

For more, including how Wolf Trap teaching artists use theater to teach the scientific method, listen above.

The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.

 

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