Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series that includes interviews with experts in a particular field or specialty about appropriate ages for children to begin taking lessons. This month, we’ve asked various arts professionals around the city to advise parents about how to evaluate whether their children have reached the ‘ready stage’, and why it’s important to wait.
Sure…the memory of watching your 5-year-old gracefully prance across the stage in a puffy, pink tutu is priceless. But lessons in the arts can offer a lot more. Your child can experience the joy of creation while they tap their endless energy to strengthen their bodies and their minds.
“Classes in the performing arts offer children the tools to discover their own special talent,” says Christina Paolucci, principal dancer of the New York Theatre Ballet and faculty member at the Ballet School of New York.
But, how do you know when your child is ready to fully benefit from a structured class?
It’s important to remember that each child is an individual with different strengths. Chronological age is not always the best measuring stick. Kids mature at different rates and parents should not be over-anxious to enroll a child before they’re ready. When attending lessons becomes a tug-of-war, it’s better to hold back and wait a few years.
Classes aimed at the youngest aficionado usually require parents to remain for the entire session. Others require children to be dropped off to participate independently in group or private lessons. Parents must evaluate which setting is right for their child. Many schools will allow you to monitor a class or two before actually registering. Exposing young children to a variety of activities is a good idea, but not all disciplines will be right for each child.
“Everyone has a unique talent,” says Elizabeth Hollon, founder of Art-N-Orbit. “When children learn to work together it has a beautiful outcome. It’s very empowering when everyone has something to add. That’s what we, as teachers in the arts, want to do.”
Here is some advice from the experts:
Children as young as 18 months thrive in “Doodlin’ n Gluin’”, the 45-minute arts and crafts class offered at Art-N-Orbit, a unique program that incorporates art and science. Experimentation at an early age helps build many preschool skills. “Working with their hands and actually seeing how things function on a 3-D level is a great teaching aid,” says Elizabeth Hollon, its founder. “It’s amazing to see how well children learn to focus and absorb.” Classes for older children emphasize invention, as kids create their own light-up space ships, erupting volcanoes and spinning robots.
Mark Rosenthal, director of After-School Art, recommends children start his art classes at the kindergarten level, but will accept younger students if they meet certain criteria. “Kids need to be able to focus on specific goals; they need to be autonomous and coachable,” he says. In art class, children explore various media from paint to ceramics.
Art instruction sparks an intellectual curiosity, encouraging inventiveness and an ability to look for solutions. “Learning to copy an animal from a picture develops important decoding skills and visual acumen. It’s analogous to skills we use to learn to read,” Rosenthal says. “The process of trial and error used in art class also encourages perseverance.”
Art instruction can ease the stress of schoolwork by providing an alternative outlet for expression. This is particularly important for kids who do not consider themselves academic or athletic. “Some of the most extraordinary results are unexpected,” Rosenthal says. “Kids come home with something wonderful that they never imagined in a million years they’d be able to do.”
“It’s amazing how quickly young students pick up basic dance skills in our creative movement classes,” says April Cook, public relations and marketing coordinator at the Broadway Dance Center. In creative dance classes, geared for 2- to 4-year-olds, children begin to explore the movements that will lay the groundwork for more sophisticated dance disciplines. Students develop many of the basic skills needed in school — how to follow directions, how to work together with peers, gross motor coordination, and counting.
At age 6, children choose a particular dance medium like ballet, tap or jazz to specialize in. Some classes incorporate all three, exposing students to a variety of genres. “Dance helps develop so many important life skills,” Cook says. “Kids learn discipline, self-control and team-work. Above all, it’s a great confidence builder — shy kids stand taller. With good motivation, kids feel more comfortable taking on leadership roles and trying new things.”
Partner dancing is the primary focus at Dancesport. “Because the children are constantly interacting, they develop strong social skills,” says Deirdre Sheppard, Dancesport’s youth coordinator. “Since we feature dances from around the world, they are also more aware of different cultures.” Kids begin creative movement partner classes at age 4. Starting at age 7, students can take courses that incorporate a variety of partner dances such as swing, the hustle, and salsa, or they can pick an area of specialization, like jazz or hip-hop. “We get a surprising number of boys in our classes,” Sheppard says. Many dance skills help the budding athlete. “Partner dancing helps them build strength, coordination and self-esteem.”
Opinions are mixed about how early to start ballet fundamentals. “I have a very strong belief that 2- and 3-year-olds should not be given ballet vocabulary. It’s too constricting for little bodies,” says Kate Thomas, co-director of the children’s division of Steps on Broadway. She encourages toddlers to exercise their spirit through experimental play, which she affectionately calls “creative chaos”. Although structured like a formal dance class, the kids are encouraged to tumble, roll and jump. Ballet terminology is gently introduced by age 5 in pre-dance classes, and traditional ballet classes start at age 6.
Christina Paolucci, of the Ballet School of New York, goes straight to ballet fundamentals with her preschoolers. “We incorporate ballet terminology in the creative movement classes for toddlers,” she says. “The classes shape the way children move and include imaginative play that encourages them to use their bodies and their minds.”
Both Thomas and Paolucci agree that an instructor must be vigilant and monitor the progression of the individual student to assess their proper level. Certain ballet movements done pre-maturely — such as the turnout and rotation in the hips — should not be stressed at a young age. Formation of the feet and legs is important and different children develop at different rates, they say.
Students who wish to go on pointe (dancing directly up on toes in special toe shoes) must work vigorously and achieve certain physical and technical milestones. Working on pointe too early can affect a child’s growth plate, leading to serious injury and even surgery. Pointe work generally begins at age 12 or 13.
“An intellectual approach to dance, even with the littlest students, can introduce concepts of applied physics; working with time, space and distance builds academic skills and self-confidence,” Thomas says. Says Paolucci: “Ballet exposes children to art, history and culture, and provides them with a peaceful escape from the bump and grind of the city.”
Theater arts can encourage the shy child to shed his cocoon, and offer the natural ham a chance to bask in the limelight. The youngest thespians come center stage in Broadway Babies’ program for children ages 6 months to 5 years. The classes, taught by Broadway performers, introduce a new theme every week. Lessons focus on rhythm, singing and creative movement. “Broadway show tunes expose young children to all kinds of music from classical to modern,” says Audrey Kaplan, co-owner of Broadway Babies and Applause Theatrical Workshops.
Janine Nina Trevens, executive and artistic director of TADA!, recommends kids start creative dramatics classes at age 3. TADA’s one-hour lessons feature songs and storytelling and each class ends with a short show presented for the parents. Both TADA and Applause offer classes and workshops for kids from kindergarten through the teens, introducing them to all aspects of theatrical production.
The Applause workshops conclude with a large-scale production, showcasing the kids’ talents. “Kids gain not only an appreciation for the theater, but also many important skills — like how to be comfortable getting up in front of a group, and how to be autonomous,” Kaplan says.
“Creative dramatics can lift your spirits,” says Trevens. “It’s a great way to learn how to express yourself and relate better to other people.” TADA! offers children age 8 and up a chance to audition for its ensemble. Ensemble members must commit to a strict rehearsal schedule, but it includes special homework time. “We always emphasize the importance of schoolwork,” Trevens says. “Grades often go up. Theater helps with the ability to focus. It makes things more fun to learn.”
Yolanda Bricard, director of Musical Kids, believes exposure to music should begin in the womb. “ Music is so important to human beings,” she says “It is the only activity that involves everything — emotions, body senses and cognitive thinking.” She suggests children start early childhood classes at 4 months, but has had students as young as 4 weeks. In early music classes, children explore different musical genres and learn about sounds and rhythms. By age 2, they can begin to match pitches and tap rhythms with a variety of percussion instruments.
Dr. Ilya Lehman, owner and co-founder of The Early Ear, says from their first day, infants can be exposed to the sounds of music. At The Early Ear, infants and toddlers listen to professionally trained and experienced musicians sing and play live chamber music on piano or woodwinds. Their first reaction to music is usually movement, and maybe even dancing by 9 months. “After a year, they have such a reach,” Dr. Lehman says. “Inside a child, this music already lives.” Around age 2, they are given instruments — very small versions of the violin, recorder, accordion or guitar. At about age two-and-a-half, the teaching professionals start looking for the rappport the child has developed with them, to see if they are able to listen and concentrate for longer periods of time; it is then, that private lessons can begin, usually on the piano or the recorder. “What’s very easy for one child at 2 is different for another child at 4,” Dr. Lehman points out. A child’s home life and family experience with music also contribute to their musical aptitude. What’s more, he adds: “The child should love their teacher.”
“Children should have a basic competence in rhythm and melody before they start an instrument,” Bricard says. They must display a certain amount of discipline and express a desire to dedicate time to study and practice. “Too often, instruction on a musical instrument relies on when the parent is ready,” says Mary Lou Francis, associate director of the children’s program at the Third Street Music School Settlement. “Parents are sometimes too anxious — it’s when the child is ready that they should start.”
The Suzuki method is widely employed for children ages 4-7, who wish to specialize in a musical instrument. Students are taught to play an instrument the same way they learn language — through repetition and positive reinforcement. Violin, viola, cello and piano are among the instruments recommended for young learners. “Much of this method relies on the parent-child relationship,” Francis says. The parent must stay with the child through the 30- to 60-minute lessons, and becomes a home teacher, guiding the child through a series of practice sessions each day. “This should be a fun, bonding time,” Francis says.
Even though most parents agree that kids are natural drummers — especially on kitchen utensils — percussion lessons are generally introduced at age 6 or 7. Wind instruments require a greater lung capacity and should not be started until a child physically develops the necessary strength. This typically occurs at around age 9.
Singing trains the ears and is a wonderful method to explore music, but formal voice lessons should not be started until the vocal chords reach a certain physical maturity level. Francis encourages choral singing, but suggests formal voice training begin at age 12. Early vocal training may strain the vocal chords, leading to injury.
Children are encouraged to perform at the Third Street Settlement’s music hour, held every Saturday. Students learn to work together toward a common goal, reinforcing the importance of teamwork. “Ensemble performance demonstrates the wonderful results we can gain by all working together,” Francis says.
566 Seventh Avenue at 41st Street; (212) 420-0474
510 East 74th Street; (212) 431-1026
Broadway Dance Center
221 West 57th Street; (212) 582-9304
Dance, Dance, Dance
220 East 86th Street; (212) 439-9528
1845 Broadway at 60th Street; (212) 307-1111
211 West 63rd Street, 3rd floor; (212) 767-0940
Ballet Academy East
1651 Third Avenue; (212) 410-9140
Ballet School of New York
30 East 31st Street at Madison Avenue; (212) 679-0401
Steps on Broadway
2121 Broadway at 74th Street; (212) 874-2410
Brooklyn Conservatory of Music
58 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn; (718) 622-3300
1365 First Avenue; (212) 799-4453
1296 Lexington Ave at 88th Street; (212) 996-5898
The Early Ear
48 West 68th Street; (212) 877-7125
Third Street Music School Settlement
235 East 11th Street at 3rd Street; (212) 777-3240
East Side — 184 East 76th Street, between Third and Lexington; (212) 472-0703
West Side — 142 West 81st Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam; (212) 787-2704
Applause Theatrical Workshops
15 West 28th Street; (212) 252-1619
NEXT MONTH — The second part in our series: KIDS’ HEALTH:
We ask NYC’s leading health providers/therapists: When is the right time to make your child’s first appointment?
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