BABY STEPS: Music, dance help tiny brains and bodies

New Westminster families are finding a wealth of reasons to sign up for music and dance classes for the two-and-under crowd

Elena is tearing around in circles. Cara is hanging back a little shyly. Luke is watching everyone with interest. Madz isn't entirely sure she wants to be here, and she takes some coaxing to get her shoes off - although she quickly decides it's a fun place after all.

All told, it looks like a slightly chaotic beginning to dance class.

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Unless, of course, you know that this is exactly how it's all supposed to be going.

"Let the kids have their own freedom with it," says Jessica Hanson with a smile.

Hanson is the owner-operator of Kids in Motion Creative Arts Studio in Sapperton. This is Rhythm Kids, her Wednesday morning movement and music class for the 1.5- to three-year-old set.

Yes, you read that right.

Tots as young as a year-and-a-half - who've pretty much just mastered walking not all that long ago - are indeed taking a dance class.

But it's not about turning out the next batch of prima ballerinas. It's about embracing the idea that movement and music are good for kids on many levels - and the earlier you expose them to it, the better.

For Hanson, it's all based on tapping into kids' inherent creativity.

"It's about really socializing them and starting with their imaginations early," she says. "Kids are creative, but we take it out of them so soon. ... Society tries to structure them and put them into a structure so soon."

A Rhythm Kids class involves free movement, follow-the-leader-style movement, instrument play, songs, a story and even some dress-up time.

Hanson believes in the power of imagination, so she runs each class on a theme. Today, it's an ocean theme, so the songs and activities are all sea-based. And, when the kids get to pull out some props, they're not just pompoms, they're jellyfish and octopus and other sea creatures.

In each class, Hanson tries to help kids not just learn how to move, but how to explore many different ways of thinking and seeing.

"Kids really get to use their imagination, and see things as they aren't," she says.

That, Hanson says, is one of the huge benefits of the class - especially for those kids who don't learn well within structured settings like the school system or traditional ballet classes. Though Hanson herself comes from a traditional, structured ballet background, she notes that it's not for everyone.

She's turning out kids who may go on to take more structured dance classes - many of her tots have already moved on to toddler dance classes - but also, at a more fundamental level, kids who feel empowered to learn in their own way.

"I want it to be a space where everyone feels welcome, and they don't have to fit in the confines of structure," she says.

For these kids, it's working.

Marina Andrinopoulos says that for her daughter, 26-month-old Elena Perdikakis, the class is a chance to channel her abundant energy into fun and learning.

"I was just looking for a place where she could run around and dance," Andrinopoulos says, smiling as the small girl takes off at a run around the room. "She just dances all the time at home anyway."

For Elena, who's not in daycare, the social exposure to other kids is important. And Andrinopoulos says the youngster is enjoying it: "She talks about it all week," her mom says with a smile.

For Betty Palma, it's a way to continue her daughter Cara's exposure to music. Cara is now 19 months old, and she was first in a baby music class at six months.

Palma herself used to play piano, and she wanted to get her children set out on a musical path early in life.

"I think it's a very important part of their upbringing," she says. "Music is a part of everything, it's a part of every day."

It helps her children learn, she says, and it helps them relax when they're wound up or upset.

And she's seen the results in her older daughter, Megan - who's five and now in kindergarten. "She's so into singing, she's dancing all the time," Palma says. "It's ingrained in her."

It's that same belief in early immersion that has Vashti Fairbairn offering music classes for infants and toddlers at her school, the Music Box studio at River Market.

Fairbairn is herself a mom, to the almost-two-year-old Clara, and her little girl has been exposed to music since even before her birth.

"I was pregnant with her, performing and teaching," Fairbairn says.

Ever since, Clara has been exposed to music, both at home and at her mom's studio, where she's an enthusiastic participant in Mini Music - a drop-in for kids aged nine months up to three years.

In Clara, Fairbairn can see all the benefits of early music education coming to life before her eyes.

"Language development for Clara was huge," she says. Her daughter's speech has grown in leaps and bounds, and she's enthusiastically using her large vocabulary - even in sentences.

Fairbairn points out that singing is good for language development because, in song, we tend to prolong vowels and make our consonants more clear - which makes it easier for tots to learn the subtleties of language. The rhythms of song also echo the rhythms of speech, and the patterns of conversation - call and response, question and answer - are all common themes in music.

At an even deeper level, music gives tots early exposure to the idea of active listening, not passive listening - as a consequence of which, they're able at an early age to identify emotion in another person's voice.

"It gives them empathy earlier," Fairbairn says.

Kids exposed to music early also have exposure to other skills - fine motor skills with finger play, hand and body coordination, balance, learning to feel a beat with their body and to beat it out with drumsticks and hands.

Fairbairn notes that kids exposed to music early are surprisingly quick to be able to keep a steady beat, to grasp high and low pitches, to distinguish between loud and soft.

And, through it all, they're learning to express themselves in their own way - which builds their self-confidence long before they understand what the word means.

"She's not afraid to sing or dance randomly," Fairbairn says, laughing as Clara does just that around the studio floor. "She's making up her own songs. It's huge creativity. She's creating her own lyrics and melody."

The class setting, too, gives the tiny participants exposure to other kids, which is important for their social development.

And, most of all, it gives them a chance to bond with mom, dad or caregiver - and to take home the songs and activities they've learned and do them together through the week.

With all of it, the little mini-musicians are building the foundation for all sorts of skills that will stand them well later in life. Fairbairn notes that kids exposed to music early in life have been shown to have better mathematical and spatial awareness skills, and their reading often takes off faster as well.

The Mini Music participants can go on to toddler study at Music Box - there's a Music Kids Club and Drama Kids Club for the three-to-five-year-old crowd - and many will move from there to formal music training, especially piano lessons.

The same is true for Kera Doherty's Music Together students at Staccato Studios in North Burnaby. The program is designed for caregivers and young children, from infancy up to age four, and it combines music and movement to provide a full immersion experience.

"The goal is to really get the children at a critical stage and give them exposure to music," Doherty says. "It's much like language learning. If you're immersed in your mother tongue, you naturally pick it up."

She, too, cites many benefits from early music education - from the early bonding and soothing qualities of music in infancy, through the language development of the toddler years, to the growth of self-discipline, patience and self-esteem in childhood.

"These are very important life skills," she points out, noting that music students learn many lessons along the way.

"They really learn the importance of hard work and dedication. ... Technology can make things so quick and easy. Having those activities that demand an attention span and make us commit long term is very important, especially for young children."

And, Doherty notes, what other activity can teach children so many things in a fun environment - not just language, speech and rhythm, but broader lessons such as social interaction, problem-solving, empathy and creativity.

"It encompasses so much when you think of how many different parts of your brain are active," she says. "It's one of those activities that just has the full package."

No, the youngsters at Rhythm Kids have no idea of all that. Nor do the Music Together students, and neither does Clara - not yet.

But Fairbairn points out that wherever they all go, the lessons they've absorbed through music and movement will remain with them.

"There's no preconception that there's another Mozart out there," she says with a smile, "but it's just going to set them up so well for other things they decide to do."

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