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Learning through exploration, active participation and imitation

Young children learn through exploration, active participation and through imitation and as such quality arts programme comprising of all art forms - visual art, music, media, dance and drama should be included as part of the curriculum in the early childhood classroom. As stated by Spodek,1993 (cited in Isenberg & Jalongo, 2001) through participating in the art activities children are able to express themselves and it provides opportunities for development of creativity , symbolizing and enhances their learning about aesthetics which further helps them gain academic knowledge. Smith, 1982 (cited in Wright, 1991) mentioned that children are able to organise their experiences and know about themselves and their world through participating in the arts. Dyson (1990, p.52) further stated that ‘art and play have critical roles in children’s growth as symbol makers ‘. Like play, art is voluntary and intrinsically motivated as children are free to choose the content and direction of the activity. There are no external demands or expectations and children are free to explore, experiment and investigate with the people, objects and materials provided. He also mentioned that children pursue art activities for intrinsic pleasure rather than external rewards. Furthermore, the gestures and first words children use during make – believe play reflect upon people’s action’s and things around their daily lives which is the early understanding of symbolisation as well as the basic foundation that develops into drawing pictures, spoken and written words in their later stages. Based on my practical experiences in the classroom and as well as through the readings from books I believe that arts is just as important as any other subject in the curriculum and children do learn and develop their physical, intellectual, emotional and social skills through participating in the arts activities. It is also a requirement by the Ministry of Education that the arts be included as part of the curriculum in the Singaporean classroom. (cited in Framework for A Kindergarten Curriculum in Singapore, 2006).

This essay is a brief attempt at looking at the importance of the arts in the education of young children drawn from two art forms which are music and drama.

According to Isenberg & Jalongo, (2001) four types of learning are promoted through the arts and they are 1) knowledge about the arts 2) skills in the arts 3) dispositions towards the arts and 4) feelings about the arts. As knowledge about the arts is developed through sensory experiences and explorations of materials, children provided with such opportunities to observe, explore and discover about the world, develop their cognitive ability and it further enhances foundation for later learning in the preschool years whereby they use symbols, language and make – believe play develops. Skills in the arts are developed when children are allowed to explore and experiment in a safe and healthy art environment provided with a variety of tools and materials under the guidance of an adult who has already acquired these skills. For example, children creating a paper use the skill of printing, painting, tearing, rolling, and colour mixing. They use their fine motor skills, eye – hand coordination and social interaction skills. Throughout the activity they engage in the process of problem solving as they experiment with colour and texture to create the paper. There is a certain amount of trial and error while they experiment with the tools. Self – expression as children are able to use their own imagination and creativity to express themselves while creating the paper. (Isenberg & Jalongo, 2001) Vygotsky, according to Berk, (2000) viewed children’s cognitive development as a socially mediated process whereby processes and skills are transferred and supported from more knowledgeable adult as children try new tasks. He also believed that as long as children acquire language, their ability to communicate with others leads to changes in thought and behaviour that vary from culture to culture. As such, the third type of learning – dispositions towards art depends on the adult being the role model and the interaction with more competent peers and teachers to support the child to participate successfully in the arts. Providing feedback as stated by Wright, (1991) is part of summative assessment that guides children’s learning and helps them acquire the elements, concepts, forms, and vocabulary about the arts. When children are given opportunities to respond to art works created by others, for example, when they are taken for visits to art galleries and teachers model ways to respond thoughtfully while viewing the works by professional artist children learn to respect the work of others and when teachers value children’s work and display them, these develops their sense of efficacy and enables them to have positive feeling about the arts.

On the other hand, Swanwick, (1998) mentioned that the three elements of play applicable to learning through the arts are mastery, imitation, and imaginative play. Mastery involves learning of a skill associated with an art form for example children learning to make finger puppets for a drama performance or trying to keep to the rhythm while experimenting with a musical instrument during a musical percussion session. Children being able to identify things and people other than themselves as well as learning how to express sympathy, empathy and show concern explains the expressive nature of the art form known as Imitation. Based on my classroom experience, preschoolers making musical sounds for pigs running away from the wolf and moving their bodies to suggest movements of a wolf and expressing through facial expressions as an angry wolf for a drama performance of the story Three Little Pigs are examples of imitation. Imaginative play focuses on the structure of an art form. Examples of imaginative play during the Three Little Pigs drama are when children experiment with different musical instruments until they are able to create the sound that best resembles the pigs running away from the wolf and when experimenting with the different ways as they can move that suggests the movement of the wolf. Swanwick, (1998) also suggests that all three elements of play must be in action for all ages in order to learn through the arts.

Isenberg & Jalongo, (2001) claim that music contributes to the total development of the child – cognitive, physical, social, emotional, cultural and aesthetics. In my centre, we have a music and movement area equipped with a variety of musical instruments like bells, tambourines, triangles etc. Children participate in music and movement activities whereby they move as well as sing along and play musical instruments. Through these activities children develop their large muscles of their bodies as they invent actions to go along with the songs .They develop fine motor skills as they play musical instruments and become aware of beat, tempo, and pitch. These activities also build kinaesthetic intelligence. Gardner, (1973, cited in Isenberg & Jalongo, 1997) Children gain experience with music and use of language as they sing the songs for instance when singing the song ‘If you happy and you know it clap your hands ‘they link words with actions and focus on the sequence and task and all these involves children’s ability to process mentally the tone, rhythm, and melody and thus involves thinking skills and cognitive connections between music and learning. As mentioned by Isenberg & Jalongo , 1997 that Bruner’s three learning stages – enactive, iconic and symbolic suggests developmentally appropriate musical experience for children and they add that Bruner’s enactive stage relates to Piaget’s(1952) sensorimotor stage and Erikson’s (1950) trust-building stage where physical activity and music are intertwined. Thus, musical activities stimulate the children’s senses, cognitive development and also build social relationships. Children’s creativity is enhanced when they are asked to decide on the other actions and movement apart from those suggested by the teacher. As stated by McAllester, (cited in Isenberg & Jalongo, 1997) music encourages participation, sharing and cooperation .Through participating in the musical activities, there is cooperation and sharing when children get together and work with a partner or in a group and these develops their social skills. Music is also an excellent tool to familiarise children with the different culture. When children are given the opportunity to experience and listen to different cultural music, they begin to appreciate and understand what each ethnic group is about.and these develops their aesthetic skills and understand the art form.

Cornett (1999) supports the need for teachers to integrate creative drama in the classroom as she states that drama being a part of everyday life, prepares an individual to connect to real life situations.

Cornett (1999) adds that when children are participating in the drama, they are able to look at problems from different points of view, respect diverse thinking, and realise that there are many ways to settle one problem. She further states that through drama, children learn to exchange feelings and emotions with each other. This enhances their personality development.

Cornett (1999) also states that personal development takes place when children control their body and words as they express ideas and feelings during the drama activities. She also indicated that positive self – image and confidence are developed through the problem solving situations.

Cornett (1999) reiterates that children engaging in situational confrontations during their role play, also become aware of the different emotions people feel for example happiness, sadness .anger, fear. She adds that the children learn that these feelings can be dealt with, thus developing a tolerance towards them.

Isbell & Raines (2007), agree that social skills can be developed in drama as children working in a group overcome difficulties through problem solving skills. They experience working with peers as they negotiate plans to stage the drama. During interactions, children learn to negotiate with each other, work cooperatively, and develop respect for each other.

In my centre, besides the dramatic play in the home corner, my class of four year olds involve in simple puppetry and mask drama using rhymes and children’s stories. Rhymes like ‘This little pig went to market’ are taught to children using puppets and later children retell the rhyme using the puppets. In addition, children take turns to dramatise the rhyme – each child given a mask of a pig (mask designed and made by child), actions like going the market, eating roast beef are incorporated. Puppets and mask are excellent props in focusing children’s attention. Through such activities children are able to participate in dramatic action using the element role, as they pretend to be someone other than themselves. Language is enhanced as they retell rhyme and children are able to express ideas and feelings through dramatic movement. (Isbell & Raines, 2007)

.As mentioned above, experts strongly believe that musical activities and drama enables children to develop their physical, cognitive, social, emotional and aesthetic skills as well as to provide opportunities for development of self – expression, creativity, symbolizing all of which enhances their academic knowledge .There are many opportunities for children to learn and develop skills, knowledge and processes through participation in the arts , as such having discussed the benefits and leaning outcomes of children’s participation in the arts , I strongly believe that the arts is important in the education of preschoolers and all art forms should be integrated into the preschool curriculum with equal emphasis as any other subject in the curriculum.

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