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Screen Time vs. Classroom Focus: How Dance Unlocks Learning Potential

Unlocking the Classroom: How Dance Can Improve Kids' Focus in the Digital Age

The benefit of the work I do is the ability to visit many classrooms and speak with teachers in a wide variety of school environments. My career with Dance Equations has allowed me to gain insights into various curricula, teaching trends, and techniques. I’ve had the privilege to work with schools in English, French, and Spanish, spanning Canada, the United States, and Costa Rica. Through international school connections and monthly meetings with math dance professionals, I’ve met teachers from all over the world. In these moments, between instruction and meetings, we discuss the state of education.

Recently, especially since the surge in screen time and online education, teachers have expressed concern about students' diminishing attention spans. Even within Facebook teacher groups and discussions, there has been a noticeable increase in educators seeking help to engage students. Teachers accustomed to teaching math with manipulatives have also voiced their concerns, noting that even these tactile devices are becoming less effective.

In my own home, we observed our children engaging less in creative play. My husband, an experienced math and science teacher, immediately correlated this with our increased use of screens since the pandemic began. We had started relying on 'tablet time' briefly in the mornings to allow us to work. With four children at home, ranging in age from 3 to 13, balancing work and homeschooling was a challenge even for experienced educators. The pandemic's trends seeped into our daily lives, with about 1 to 2 hours of screen time per day. While this may not seem excessive, we noticed differences, especially in their ability to regulate their emotions afterward.

I need to give full credit to my husband here; he insisted on no screen time. Though I was hesitant, I agreed. The first month was tough; there was excessive whining, and I struggled to complete my projects. However, after one month, our home environment noticeably changed. Blocks came out, the art table was frequented, and multiple creative spaces emerged. Over a year since we eliminated tablets, phones, and television, there is a new sense of calm, and our children's focus and grades have improved. While diet also plays a crucial role (ours is balanced with very low sugar intake), it left me wondering: how much does screen time contribute to this focus deficit pandemic?

A recent study I found in the National Library of Medicine, published on June 18, 2023, states, "...studies have shown that excessive screen time and media multitasking can negatively affect executive functioning, sensorimotor development, and academic outcomes. Early screen exposure has been associated with lower cognitive abilities and academic performance in later years." The article provides an extensive list of related research, and while I read through some of the studies, it was quite evident that while some screen time showed benefits, such as providing a useful tool for learning, there was an abundance of evidence that screens also led to problems in social-emotional development, including obesity, sleep disturbances, depression, and anxiety. Screen time can impair emotional comprehension, promote aggressive behavior, and hinder social and emotional competence. There are potential effects on brain development, especially for the youngest screen users in the first years of education and development.

Are educators up against an impossible force, without control over what happens within the home after the school day ends? As class sizes increase and more standards are added, what hope do educators have to recapture their audience, and how can we support one another through this incredible challenge?

With this goal in mind, I hope to generate meaningful discussions and possibly provide solutions for teachers. My teaching methods are as far from screens or traditional teaching methods as possible. Working with Space, Time, Force, and Body, I aim to create a truly experiential learning experience for both students and teachers. Could movement in the classroom be one of the tools educators need? Let’s examine some data.

In the National Library of Medicine, an article titled: "Physical Activity and Cognitive Functioning of Children" found that, "Physical exercise increases circulation, which leads to better oxygen supply to the brain, as well as providing the brain with nutrients." Additional physical activity has "a positive influence on all systems: the motor, cardiovascular, respiratory, hormonal, immunologic, and nervous systems. Thus, it stimulates the maturation of the motor areas in the brain, which in turn influences motor development and increases the speed of the conductance of nervous impulses." Furthermore, "Physical activity also stimulates the increase of neurohormonal secretion (substances produced by hypothalamic neurons and transported by blood or cerebrospinal fluid), having a significant impact on the excitability of neurons forming synapses. School-age children who devote at least an hour each day to intensive physical activity show much better cognitive functioning, and researchers emphasize that, despite these unquestionable benefits, only about a third of children regularly engage in sports." So, an increase in physical activity could be a solution.

It may surprise you to know that the idea of teaching mathematics through dance and movement is not new. I live in Costa Rica, where the educational model heavily focuses on notebooks, note-taking, and rote didactic learning methods. I face some challenges in garnering the attention of education professionals here. In contrast, teachers in Canada, the United States, and Europe, with whom I work, are increasingly interested in new teaching methods and activities aimed at improving classroom functionality and lessons. So when I share my ideas within my immediate community, there's an element of shock and awe: "How do you teach math through dance?" Studies about mathematics and movement have been around for a long time and have been discussed, especially in university environments. However, there hasn’t been as much practical implementation. There doesn't seem to be a trickle-down effect from the ideas introduced to education at higher levels towards the classroom. I'm not sure why, but it could have a lot to do with the control administrators have over education and the limited influence that teachers and individuals with in-school experience have over evaluation systems and educational standards (but that's a topic for another blog). In short, there's a lot of evidence that dance is a viable way to teach and practice mathematics, experiencing mathematics in real-time. I truly believe almost everything is mathematical when discussed in mathematical terms, but dance has many direct correlations.

I explain it this way: "Music is mathematical because of the division of time; we can measure beat rhythm and tone through frequency. It is mathematical because of its use of time. In dance, we also use time. As mentioned earlier, the four most basic elements of dance are Space, Time, Force, and Body. Therefore, through these elements, we can explore a broader range of mathematics, not only through the calculation of a dancer's movements with time but also through pathways through space, formations, and coordination. In an article by the University called "Math Dance: A Study of Effectiveness," it was found that students within their math dance program, "...outperformed the traditional control group students in the areas of mathematical content knowledge, attitudes toward mathematics, and persistence in problem-solving." The marriage between physical output and spatial exploration seems to have significant value.

It is my hope that through this continued discussion, I will inspire teachers to use movement in all classes, especially in math class, and that administrators and school boards can better support the professional development and mental well-being of teachers. Additionally, there needs to be a collective emphasis on limiting screen use in schools, but especially in the home. Without the help of parents, the outcomes for future generations could be catastrophic. To regain the enthusiasm for learning, we need school boards to provide space for alternative learning and what Rosenshine calls the 'varied diet' so that our children receive the stimulation required for growth.

If you have thoughts you'd like to share with me or would be interested in exploring dance and movement in your classroom, please join my Dance Equations community, and let's work together to improve the state of education. I can't do it without eager professionals and parents like YOU.


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