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BABY STEPS: Music, dance help tiny bodies and brains

Burnaby families are embracing the idea of music and dance classes for the two-and-under crowd

Hear the words "dance class," and you might envision a row of tiny ballerinas, hair pulled back into neat buns, pink tutus and ballet slippers at the ready as they reach for the barre with small hands.

You might not think of a room full of giggling, running, spinning munchkins, playing with instruments, dancing with scarves and putting themselves through an obstacle course - more often than not going off course and having to be steered back to the task at hand by mommy.

Then again, most of these tiny dancers aren't quite two years old yet. And none of them have any idea how many benefits they're getting out of being here at Cameron Recreation Centre on a Monday morning.

This is Toddler's First Dance, a Burnaby parks and recreation program taught by Marcia Jones.

It exposes little people - from the time they're confidently walking up to age two-and-a-half - to the fundamentals of movement and music.

It's a cause near and dear to Jones's heart.

She's a dancer and teacher who specializes in using movement to enhance early childhood development. And by early, she means truly early - from infancy onwards. Long before kids can walk, or even crawl, they can join a "dance" class and learn, alongside their caregiver, ways to stimulate their development.

"We know now, the research is showing us, early movement is crucial for the development of certain parts of the brain," Jones says, noting that the lower brain and mid-brain regions are all developing rapidly in the early months.

"Those parts of the brain really get cemented in the first year. The first year of life is when it's really crucial," she says.

Ideally, she says, all children cycle through six fundamental movement patterns as their brains develop and neural pathways are opened in the brain. What needs to happen for optimum physical development, she says, is that kids have the freedom to move through those patterns naturally - not to be confined in carseats, swings, bouncy chairs and other restraining devices too much of the time.

"They need to be able to mobilize themselves and work it out for themselves," she says.

That's why she stresses independent movement on the floor, especially on the tummy, for the two-month-to-crawling set in her Baby's First Dance classes.

If they don't get a chance to work all those things out in the first year, Jones says, kids' brains are resilient: they will find a way to compensate. But it may lead to movement that's not efficient or other problems that crop up later on.

"Once they start to mobilize on their own, they start to master certain patterns," she says. "They start having their own motivation to move."

She points out that the young brain is constantly forming and changing, and as the babies move into toddlerhood - like this batch of youngsters creating organized chaos in the Cameron Centre's Hemlock Room - they're working hard on balance and coordination.

It's also important for toddlers to stimulate their vestibular systems - the inner ear that regulates the sense of balance and other processes related to movement and spatial orientation.

"Toddlers especially like to tumble and twirl and fall all over the place," Jones says. "They're trying to find a way to get all the fluids moving in their brain."

That movement in turn helps them learn, especially for those who are kinetic learners. "They need that movement to think."

Setting a solid foundation in the early years is important, Jones says, because the stronger the foundation, the more naturally learning will continue to flow.

"It sets up the foundation for the rest of the child's life," she says.

As intimidatingly academic as that may sound, Toddler's First Dance is anything but. It opens with a welcome song - each child has their moment in the spotlight to stand up, turn around and run around the circle - and moves through a series of music-and-movement activities including scarf play, instrument play, marching and an obstacle course that includes tunnel crawling, balancing and backwards walking.

All of it's done hand-in-hand with a caregiver - in this class, mostly moms, but with a nanny and a dad also taking part.

The huge smiles on the little faces testify to how much fun they're having being here together.

It's working for Lorena Flouret and her almost-two-year-old daughter, Victoria.

"Since she was little she likes to dance," Flouret says with a smile. She's seen growth in the little girl already, she says, noting Victoria will even do some of the movements from class at home. "What I like is how she starts understanding the class, and she starts to participate."

Jennifer McPherson agrees. She's here with 20-month-old Sarah, and she likes the chance for Sarah to interact with the other kids. "Whenever we put on music at home she starts dancing. When music comes on, she starts moving, she does some of the movements (from class)."

For Kristin Vandegriend and 20-month-old Alexa, class is a fun social outing for both of them - some of their friends from a StrongStart drop-in program at a local elementary school are also in the class, and both moms and kids have some extra bonding time at dance class.

"She likes being with other kids," Vandegriend says.

And, she notes with a laugh, "She has a lot of energy. We needed somewhere to tire her out."

The parent-child bonding is an important part of class for Jones.

"Moving with an adult in these classes is about connection," Jones points out. "It's not about, 'Oh, you go out and play, it's 'Let's play together.'"

The same is true at Staccato Studios in North Burnaby, where Kera Doherty offers Music Together classes for kids from infancy up to age four and their parents.

Especially for infants, she says, music is a real aid to bonding with their mom or dad, and it's a social outlet for the parents as well.

People who take Music Together classes don't have to be musical, Doherty says, and they don't have to want their kids to become concert pianists, either.

"It's just sharing music, giving them a love of music," she says. "It just becomes a part of life."

Music Together is a research-based program based on the knowledge that early exposure to music can benefit children. It's based on neuroscientific research that explores just how music education can change a child's development for the better - and puts it into a fun, informal setting for families.

"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."

Music offers excellent exposure to language for little ones, she points out, noting that it follows the rhythms of speech and gives children a chance to practice active listening - noticing loud and soft, fast and slow, and, at an even deeper level, beginning to recognize expression in their caregivers' faces and emotion in their voices.

As the babies grow into toddlers, class becomes much more physical - they're into bouncing, swaying and spinning, exploring the physical side of rhythm-making and gaining motor skills, balance and coordination.

They get exposure to pre-literacy skills in their songbooks, which have pictures, words and music, and they start to pick up letters and numbers through the music.

They're also given a chance to explore their own creativity and to socialize with other kids.

"They start taking interest in one another more. They'll start dancing together," Doherty says, noting that the mixed age group also provides excellent learning opportunities for babies and toddlers alike. "The older ones have a chance to take on more of a leadership role. And I think the babies learn just a little bit more when they have children a little older than themselves."

Not only do the children build skills in matching rhythms, recognizing the contours of melody and eventually matching pitches, but they gain a much broader foundation in what Doherty calls their "emotional IQ" - their social interaction, their confidence, their creativity, their problem-solving skills.

The classes offer a solid foundation for those who go on to formal music-making later on, be it piano lessons, dance or choir. They've learned to love music, Doherty notes, which is important as they move into more formal lessons.

And she's seen the benefits for those kids who've started music as toddlers and gone on to the teenage years.

"Children who do music from an early age, they seem to be really fearless about doing social activities, presentations," Doherty says. "If you can be confident singing in front of people, you can be confident getting up in class and doing a presentation, for example."

Even more importantly, a foundation in music has built the child's self-confidence - "every child needs something they feel confident in their abilities at" - and the discipline, goal-setting and hard work that music lessons require.

"Those are very important life skills," Doherty points out. "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. These things are even more important  than ever now."

The youngsters that turn out to her Music Together class don't know any of that, of course. Any more than the tots running around the Cameron Recreation Centre have any idea that they're stimulating the development of their brains.

But the fact is, they're already getting a head start down the road to learning and they're having fun doing it - and that, Doherty says, is what early exposure to music does so well.

"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 that full package."