When my friend Brittany Hagan shot me a text asking if I wanted to tag along to 9-year-old Isabel’s first rehearsal at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. You see, “Izzie” is a black lab and also a cast member — along with other therapy dogs, baby goats, a rabbit, hen, tortoise and a goldfish — in the theater’s innovative and zany spring production, “Animal Dance.”
Designed with the preschool set in mind, world-renowned choreographer and performance artist Ann Carlson creatively dances and interacts onstage with the critters. “Animals are dancers,” says Ann. “A goat wags its tail, a dog rolls over.”
And when they’re onstage together, the unexpected is the rule. Captivating moves and antics provide an improvisational production that entertains and lets young kids gain respect for animals while they discover the similarities they share.
Patty Born Selly, assistant professor of education at Hamline University and consultant for “Animal Dance,” says children are naturally drawn to animals. Observing and interacting with them gives children an opportunity to demonstrate compassion and responsibility.
Why not open up new possibilities for your kids to connect with animal friends? Here are some of Patty’s practical ideas:
–Provide opportunities to care for household pets through brushing and feeding, putting out bird feeders or tending a garden that feeds butterflies and other insects. Clean the fish tank together, or get creative and arrange the “furniture” in a guinea pig cage. Kids will develop a sense of confidence in themselves when they participate. It feels good to help others! Taking care of pets also lets kids practice gentleness and self-regulation. You have to move slowly to feed a bunny without startling it.
–Talk about animals wherever you go. Invite your kids to tell you what the animals are doing and other details they find interesting. For preschoolers, a simple line of ants on a sidewalk can be an exciting discovery. Crouch down and observe together. What do they look like? Where are they going? Even if you don’t have answers, it’s the sharing that communicates to your child that you value his excitement.
–Put on a play or your own family version of “Animal Dance” with a pet. Through dramatic play, children can “test out” the perspective of others. It’s also a playful way to learn about animals while they try on new ways of thinking and being in the world.
Resources: www.childrenstheatre.org; “Connecting Animals and Children in Early Childhood” by Patty Born Selly: Redleaf Press.