Eagles, Reptiles and Beyond: A Co-Creative Journey in Dance
Bond, Karen, Deans, Jan, Childhood Education
Come with us to the Children's Centre in Melbourne, Australia. Operated by the University of Melbourne's Department of Early Childhood Studies, the Centre is unique for its special programs in dance and visual arts. Here, over a 10-week period in 1995, a group of 4-year-olds took part in a memorable creative adventure in which they began and sustained a transformative curriculum involving them in dance, drama, sound-making, and graphic and linguistic reflection.
Specialist dance teacher Jan Deans, who has served as Coordinator of the Children's Centre since 1993, facilitated the curriculum described in this article. She is the teacher referred to in the following narrative.
A Co-creative Journey in Dance
The dance curriculum was part of a larger collaborative study known as the Octopus Project.(1) Researchers with expertise in dance, early childhood theory and practice, language development, mathematics, music, science and visual arts worked alongside the Centre's staff to examine learning and teaching across a range of modalities, environments and content areas (see Tinworth et al., 1996). Researchers and teachers documented the study using video, audio and photographic recordings; written observations; discussions and interviews with children, parents and staff; and archives of children's work. Formal recording and collection involved two 4-year-old groups, across four settings: the home room, the dance space, the discovery room (visual arts) and outdoor play. By acknowledging children's authority in initiating and constructing curriculum, the Octopus Project contributes to the growing international interest in examining how children learn through diverse and integrated modes, "multiple intelligences" (Gardner, 1983) and "emergent curriculum" (Edwards, Gandini & Forman, 1993; Nimmo, 1994).
This article focuses on the Wattle Group, composed of 9 girls and 11 boys, who developed an interest in eagles and reptiles. They initiated a creative process that continued over the entire period of formal recording. Most of these 4-year-olds were of Anglo-European descent. Two of the boys were recent immigrants to Australia from southeast Asia; one showed limited expressive English. The aim of this discrete study-within-a-study is to illuminate children's perceptions of dance, which are not strongly represented in early childhood theory (Bond, 1994a, 1994b).
Little has changed since Adelman (1987) wrote:
Apart from some novels, autobiographical and psychoanalytic accounts, the integrity of children's culture (which includes their aesthetic) has been entered and understood by few researchers. . . . In most observers' studies the meaning for the children, their referents and pivots, their aesthetic, has been largely overlooked . . . (pp. 29-30)
The Octopus Project addresses this gap, yielding insights into the aesthetic and intellectual values of young children within a responsive setting, where children and teachers are co-creators of curriculum.
The study expands on previous efforts to use visual art as evidence for children's meaning-making in dance (Bond, 1994a; Deans, 1993). Beginning with the assumption that children enjoy their involvement in dance, we invited them to reflect on their perceptions of value and to share their aesthetic preferences. After each dance session, children made pencil drawings in response to the question, "What did you most enjoy doing in dance today?" An adult then asked each child to write descriptions directly on the drawings. Sometimes children chose not to engage in verbal reflection. All dance sessions were videotaped, and extensive on-site field notes were taken by multiple observers. All these sources of evidence were interwoven to generate themes and narratives.
Octopus Dance is held once a week on Monday mornings in a large, carpeted space. Jan (the teacher) is assisted by the home-room teacher, Elly, who is a dynamic participant in all sessions. …