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Dancing program jumpstarts love for learning

Group of kids flex muscles
Art Sparks offers fitness-based dance programs that combat obesity by teaching kids about nutrition and healthy lifestyle practices.

It's time for recess, and physical education teacher Mary Breiding watches as her students play on the playground at McEbright Community Learning Center. Soon, she realizes they're not just playing – they're dancing.

The kids are practicing the dance moves they learned from Art Sparks, a movement and music enrichment program that uses dance to teach students about core academic subjects like health, science and math.

"It's amazing because I'll see the kids in the hallway or outside at recess, and they're doing some of the dance moves they learned," Breiding said. "The kids just love it."

The program reinforces teachers' curriculums by integrating lessons about healthy eating, anatomy and even geometry into catchy jingles and fun dance moves.

"They're getting academic content in a kinesthetic way," said Kara Stewart, executive director and founder of Art Sparks. "Many times they're able to understand the concepts better that way than through pen and paper, which doesn't work for all students."

Last year, a grant from the Millennium Fund brought Art Sparks programming into second- and third-grade classrooms in Akron Public Schools. This year, another grant will expand the program to include students with special needs.

Stewart said students with special needs can uniquely benefit from dance because the combination of movement and music strengthens their sequencing skills and improves impulse control.

"Dance is a wonderful vehicle to practice controlling the body and its responses," she said. "There are all sorts of built-in components of the class that reinforce those concepts."

With the help of the grant, students in special needs classrooms will have the opportunity this year to participate in Art Sparks' Fabulous Fitness program, which uses dance to teach kids about the importance of physical fitness, balanced nutrition and healthy lifestyle practices. The rising rate of childhood obesity makes this program particularly timely, Stewart said.

"In this age of iPhones and TV, we know most children are sedentary when they go home," she explained. "We want to teach them that joyful movement can be fun and healthy."

Breiding agreed, saying, "I always challenge them to go home and show one or two dance moves to their mom and dad. Or, when they're at the grocery store, ask, 'Can we have a banana today?'"

But the long-term impact of the program goes far beyond physical health, Breiding said, adding that it also opens students' eyes to new opportunities.

"They see that teaching and dancing is something you can do for a career and a lifestyle," she said. "It broadens the kids' horizons and shows them there are other options in the world."

It also gives them a boost in confidence and self-esteem, something that they don't always get at home, she said.

"(Art Sparks) makes the kids feel successful and encourages them," Breiding said. "I can't say enough about this program – it is just off-the-charts amazing. They are phenomenal."

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