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"We Are the Most Matched Partners": Parent-Child Interactive Experiences Mediated through Physical Activities

Shu-Chi Piao

Introduction 1

Children begin to know and explore the world through their movements as they learn to control their bodies. In this way, the development of the body and physical health become the foundation for all learning. Moreover, we can say that physical expression is the most basic communicative resource because children express themselves through action before they learn to express themselves orally. Playing games is an important form of such expression and crucial for children's growth. Studies show that physical games make children feel content and increase intimacy between those who play games, and the experience of touch during game playing is memorized. Thus, parent-child interactive experiences that are mediated through physical activities not only make both parents and children very happy and satisfied but also accumulate positive effects.

     My personal experience as a dance teacher for many years confirms that the bodily sensations people experience through physical activities are less likely to be forgotten. This is because when people are affected emotionally by the touch and physical contact in the games, they remember them clearly and deeply. This is one of the reasons I began my study of the Life Pulse dance course at the Cloud-Gate Dance School in Taipei, Taiwan. In this paper, I will describe my preliminary observations of the Cloud-Gate Dance School's parent-child dancing class and discuss the interactive physical experience between parents and children. After some general comments on physical learning and a brief introduction to the research context, the paper focuses on (1) modes of parent-child interaction, (2) interacting through physical activities, and (3) the roles played by parents, teachers, and children.

Physical Learning

Children learn to adapt to the world around them; they practice bodily skills they have learned from their surroundings and begin to develop a cognitive picture of that world by exploring it with hands-on practice (Shuei 2005). Basic skills in bodily movements are important for development because it is on the basis of the basic skills that children build up new, more complicated skills for their future use. As developmental psychologists Gallahue and Donnelly (2003) have shown, an individual's mental and physical developments progress little by little, so earlier development forms the basis of later developments. In addition, Riolama, Ideishi, and Ideishi (2007) have pointed out that, by experiencing movements such as hand-giving, bouncing, balancing and hopping, children learn to cognize and understand the world. Since children's sensations, actions, and responses constitute all their expression before language development, children explore and learn a great deal from their physical experiences. These physical experiences include creativity, cognition, socialization, and emotionalizing, all of which can improve children's understanding of the meaning, function, and expression of their movements. In sum, children learn via their bodily experience, and what they have learned about their physical development can be the foundation of their future learning.

Changes in Children's Activity in Taiwan

In general, the structure of the Taiwanese family has changed due to economic changes. Many years ago there were many big families in a largely agricultural society. Children could play with their siblings, and they were taken good care of by their uncles, aunts, and grannies. In contemporary Taiwan, however, the nuclear family is more common, and children have to take care of themselves because both parents work outside the home. This means that the amount of time children spend with their mothers has changed drastically because working mothers have less time for care taking. Contemporary Taiwanese parents and children interact with each other less than before because parents leave less time for their children.

     In addition, there are fewer spaces in urban areas for children to play. In the past, children were able to run on the grass, climb trees, swing on a pole, and play on the swing. Nowadays, there is not much space in or around urban buildings, which makes it very difficult for children to find places to run, jump, and play. Even at school, the playing space for children is limited. As a result, the amount of exercise and active play children experience becomes limited, and this deficiency in exercising can cause problems, such as becoming overweight (Wang 2003). Yet children are naturally energetic and need to use their body to explore the world as they grow.

     Most children continue to play games with parents at home. A common parent-child game is to hold the child under the armpits and swing him or her up and down. Another common parent-child game is to carry the child up high and swing him or her up in the air like an airplane. These parent-child games can make children feel excited and create intimacy between both the child and the parent. For example, one little girl told me that her favorite game is "riding Daddy's back." It is a game similar to horse riding that she played with her father. In the game, she sits on her father's shoulders, back, or waist and moves with her father (see Figure 1). Unfortunately, parents play these games with their children less frequently than in the past. A little boy told me that his parents were so busy every day that he hoped they could find some time to play with him.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The game of riding Daddy's (or Mommy's) back.

One response to these economic and family changes in Taiwan is that many dance and music institutions now offer classes for little children and their parents. This is the case, despite the fact that the birth rate is lower, and so the population of children is less than before. For example, the Hsin-yi Foundation Trust, Ju Percussion Music School, Yamaha Music Classes, and Cloud-Gate Dance School all provide classes for children from two to four years old and their parents. I suggest that these classes are popular because parents would like to spend more time with their children and want to find a place for their children to play despite their busy lifestyles and the crammed spatial environment in urban areas. Parents believe that by taking these classes they can provide their children a safer place to play and learn. Taiwanese parents nowadays also strongly emphasize children's education, and these classes aim to provide children with new and different skills and increase their capacity for intimacy with other people. In this paper, I describe my research on the child-parent classes offered at the Cloud-Gate dance school.

The Research Context

Mr. Lin Hwai-min, artistic director of Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan, established Cloud-Gate Dance School in 1998.1 The child-parent course stresses learning via the body and using creative teaching methods to explore the student's individual world. The course aims to help children get to know their own body and to explore creative movements on their own (Mead 2007). "Life Pulse" is the name of the course, inferring that everything comes from ordinary life, and so dance as an art form can emerge from practicing daily bodily movements. The course subject matter and its content are, therefore, borrowed from elements in real life. In class, the students start from things with which they are familiar, and the teacher creates an environment that is familiar to the students. Students learn through games, and the goal of the course is to provide an opportunity for children to explore and develop in both body and mind and to get to know themselves better—to accept who they are and learn to respect, tolerate, and appreciate others (Chang 2004). In classes, the teacher will utilize different creative methods to help children learn to observe others, discuss with others, imitate others, and create movements on their own. The teacher will give oral instructions or demonstrate with his or her own body to encourage children to link the movements to their life experience and to expand their mind and bodily exploration (Mead 2007).

     The courses at the school are designed for children at different age stages. Courses one to four are for children around four to six years old and contain the elements of music and dance. Courses five to ten offer a combination of drama, art, poetry, music, and bodily movements. Courses eleven to thirteen include experience of dances from different countries, and courses fourteen to sixteen introduce Chinese bodily movements with the specific goal of helping students learn to connect their body with their mind (Cloud-Gate Dance School 2003; Mead 2007; Van Zile 2005).

Figure 2
Figure 2. The structure of the Cloud-Gate Dance School's Life Pulse course.

My research project was limited to observing the behavior of three-to-four- year-old children and their parents in the parent-child Life Pulse course. It took place in two of the Cloud-Gate Dance School's child-parent courses at Nan-Meng Hall in Taipei City, Taiwan. There were twenty child-parent pairs participating in the twenty-two-week-course, which met for fifty minutes once a week. The research methods I chose for this study included nonparticipant observation, videotaping, and interviews. My findings are summarized below.

1. Modes of Parent-child Interaction

For a three-year-old child, the safest thing to do is to stay beside his or her mother. When children are in an unfamiliar event full of strangers, a parent's company is necessary. A parent's companionship makes children feel safe; indeed, parents who are beside their child can take care of them. In the parent-child course, parents usually follow the teacher's instruction and lead their child to accomplish the class assignment. During this process, the parent-child interaction changes constantly according to the teacher's instructions.

(a) Agreeable Interaction

Agreeable interaction occurs when intimate conversation and physical interaction happen between the parent and child. It occurs frequently during the classes. In one of the weekly class units, "koala," for example, children are asked to act as if they are a koala bear—taking their parent's body as a tree and moving up and rolling down on the parent's body. The parent has to protect his or her koala child in the game. They hold each other tightly and depend on each other. After several tries in the game, many children ask to play more. Their facial expressions, body interaction, the way they speak, and the distance between the parent and child all show that they are in a mode of agreeable interaction: a mother usually kneels down with her face closer to the child and speaks softly, such as "Let's try again, all right?" Mothers usually have a supportive smile on their faces and speak gently and softly.

(b) Conflicting Interaction

Children can be emotionally upset in class if they are tired. For example, there was a child who was tired and became passive during the class because he did not take a nap in the afternoon. There were also children who were not in a good mood, did not feel like participating the class, and wanted to go home. When children became emotional in class, some parents would comfort, encourage, or just accompany them; however, some parents would be influenced by their children and get angry. Asian parents usually enjoy considerable power in child-teaching situations; thus, parents have high expectations and place demands on children during class. This is one cause of parent-child conflict. For example, one mother grabbed her agitated child who had run all over the place in class and warned him to stop. She said, "Come here as I count to three. We are in class now; don't run here and there. I'm talking to you. Did you hear me?" The way she spoke to her child was in a reprimanding, if not warning, tone. There are also parents who would carry a crying child away and come back to the class later when the child became quiet.

     These descriptions show that there is a sort of invisible string connecting the parent and the child when they interact. There is clearly active two-way interaction as the child's performance influences the parent's behavior (Chen 2000). Parents give and take rather than pass information along a one-way street.

2. Interacting through Physical Activities

Symbolic interactionists maintain that people learn social meanings and symbols through social interactions. Accordingly, children learn meanings through social communications such as their physical movements and eye contact with others, and later through language and word usage. In the parent-child dancing class, both the parent and the child interact through physical activities using their bodies as a medium to express what they mean at heart. They convey and exchange their thoughts, feelings, values, and emotions via bodily movements.

     Landreth (2000) pointed out that engaging parents in class participation not only increases children's self-control but also stimulates them through their physical contact with parents in the games. Studies show that human interactions with physical touch can achieve better communication because people feel more connected psychologically through physical touch compared to interactions in conversational form (Shi 2002). Participating in bodily activities during the parent-child class, then, is highly suitable for children, especially these young ones.

     Many private institutions that provide parent-child classes in music, dance, or a combination of the two for two-to four-year-old children provide classes in which students interact with each other through physical activities. For instance, the Hsin-Yi Foundation provides storytelling and some games with props to help parents and children become more intimate through their interactions in class. The Ju Percussion Music School's percussion classes and Yamaha Music Class's piano-playing classes are designed not only to help students know more about music but also improve parent-child relationships through instruments-playing. Cloud Gate Dance School, however, teaches classes that are based primarily on physical activities.

     The Cloud Gate Dance School's parent-child dancing course is based on active physical activities such as "Big Muscle" activities and athletic activities that include hand-and-eye coordination, hugs, holds, lifts, and massage between parents and children. Teachers usually provide a story to assist children get into their 'play roles' easily. The story is usually about daily life events, and the teacher uses props that are familiar to children such as an airplane, train, automobile, washing machine, or a television and remote control. The props are used to stimulate students' interest in learning. For instance, in the course unit called "Compare and Contrast Dance," the teacher uses different pictures and objects to attract the children and lets them distinguish the differences among the pictures and objects. Other strategies include the teacher's asking the parent and child to sing simple songs and dance together in order to learn better (Figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3. Singing songs and physical interactions.

Through the physical games in class, teachers also attempt to let students experience the artistic/creative spirit of dancing. Some elements of Laban Movement Analysis such as attitudes toward space, time, energy, and quality are also introduced into the games. As Chang (2004) has pointed out, courses of physical activity provide an opportunity for the children to experience, explore, and develop their body and mind. It helps them know themselves better so that they are able to accept self on the one hand, and respect, tolerate, and appreciate others on the other hand.

     Physical activities can help children grow in terms of physical development, brain stimulation, and the maturing of emotional feeling. My observations showed that, through physical interactions in class, the distance between children and their parents decreases and the verbal expression among them becomes closer and sweeter.

     At the end of the parent-child class session, parents massage their child; this is a time to stimulate the child's sensation of being touched but also a time for children to become calm and comfortable. It is a restful moment as the teacher speaks softly over soft music and directs the parent and child into a quiet state (Figure 4). The teacher would also share the course goals with the parents and remind them of anything they might need to adjust or improve during the class.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Parent-child massage.

3. The Roles of the Parent, Child, and Teacher

(a) The Role of the Parent

Brown (1995) identifies several types of roles played by parents during parent-child interaction during museum visits. Parents may take the role of caretaker, supporter, helper, initiator, assistant, partner, leader, and demonstrator. Brown suggests that parents usually perform these types of roles according to their personality. I too observed that parent-child interactions revealed not only the degree of intimacy between child and parent (and whether they get along) but also the parent's personality. For example, according to my observations of the parent-child interaction in the dancing course, parents who have a stronger personality tend to be the leader or initiator of interaction, while parents who have a milder personality tend to be partners or helpers. In addition to the role parents play in relation to their children, they play a consumer role in relation to the teacher. Parents evaluate what their child has gained from the course—such as improvements in the child's physical performance, adaptability, independence, and ability to express him- or herself—and decide whether they should continue purchasing the course. This leads to a further research question: does the fact that parents evaluate the course with a critical perspective influence the parent-child interaction?

(b) The Role of the Child

Children have to play both the role of student and child in class because their parents also participate in the course. As a student, the child has to listen to the teacher's instructions and do what they are asked to do independent of a parent. However, as the children are also under the protection of his or her parent in class, they tend to be dependent. Thus, during the course, the child usually swings between two different states of mind—independent versus dependent, from a state of 'willing-to-try-out-new-things' versus a state of 'staying-in-the-comfort-zone' depending on his or her mood that day.

(c) The Role of the Teacher

The teacher has to face both the student and their parent at the same time. He or she needs to be able to talk in at least two different ways to communicate effectively with the two groups. On the one hand, the teacher plays the multiple roles of program designer, negotiator, and information provider in front of the students. On the other hand, the teacher also has to communicate with the parents in a way that adults talk with each other and deal with any issues that arise in class. For instance, some parents might either participate too little or involve themselves too much in class. Some parents would even make too many personal suggestions or demands for the class. Therefore, the teacher usually plays the role of an educator to both groups: preventing parents' making too many demands but also demonstrating the movements to the students with a definite procedure to avoid them getting hurt from erroneous physical movement. Nevertheless, since both parents and their children are involved in the class participation, the teacher often plays more than the role of an educator.

Concluding Remarks

The parent-child interactive experience mediated through physical activities described here provides a scaffold for further learning to be stimulated by both the child's peers and parents and improves the quality of the parent-child interactions. Parents play an important role in the process because their participation in class influences the learning results for the children: class may proceed well; children may learn better; the parent-child interaction may improve.

     In addition, parents who take an educator's point of view would be able to encourage children to learn even more, and there are several ways for the parents to educate themselves, both in and out of class. In the class, parents can relearn how to educate their children through physical activities where they have good interactive physical contact with their children, not only through verbal exchanges with other parents. Outside the class, I found that, when class was over, parents who were in the same class would remain in contact and invite each other to social events to meet and participate with other people in their family, community, or school.   

     Although parents nowadays in Taiwan already emphasize children's education (which is why these courses for children have emerged), parents still need to educate themselves on how to lead their child. To meet this need, Cloud Gate School offers parents who take the parent-child interactive dance class a "parent's class" in advance so that they can learn how to control their body and get ready to be the best partner for their children. The parent's class teaches parents to improve their own bodily awareness, bodily development, and games leadership. In addition, parents are shown that they can help children continue to learn outside of class—such as extending the theme that they have learned in class to their daily lives. Children would then definitely improve because of numerous opportunities to practice both in and out of class. What is more, children's experience of dancing with their parents in their daily lives would make their daily life more colorful.

     My documentation and observations described here show how the parent-child interactive course helps to build a child's sense of his or her body through experiencing physical activities. Children can understand and come to know their body in the process, develop a fondness for exercising and for their physical being, which, in turn, improves their independence and confidence. Their parents, too, can rediscover the comfort brought about by intimate interaction with their children during the physical activities. Although the teacher and the students have to overcome the same initial challenges that any learning situation presents (students have to adapt themselves to the class environment and try to learn their best, while the teacher needs to manage the class and communicate with the parents), this is a unique course in which parents too can learn from the in-class-participant experience shared with their children.

     I recognize that this paper is very limited in that it presents the results of preliminary research, but I hope to make future contributions to the field of artistic dance education, child education, and parent education. There are very few research projects addressing children's art and physical education in Taiwan. Although parent-child interactive artistic courses are booming, I feel that children's art and physical education is still not emphasized sufficiently.

Figure 5
Figure 5. A dance between parent and child.


1 Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan is a modern-dance group generally acknowledged as the country's premier dance organization. It was founded by choreographer Lin Hwai-min in 1973. Also an author of short stories and active in the literary scene in the 1960s and 1970s, Lin Hwai-min created innovative dances that evoked the unique experience of Taiwan people within the larger Chinese and Asian context, blending its roots in Asian mythology, folklore, and aesthetics with a Western modern-dance sensibility. Dancers train and perform using diverse movement disciplines and artistic approaches such as tai chi, meditation, martial arts, modern dance, and ballet. In recognition of Cloud Gate's importance locally and internationally, on August 21, 2003, Taiwan's government proclaimed the day "Cloud Gate Day" and named the street on which the company's office is located as "Cloud Gate Lane." This was the first time in Taiwan's history a day and place were named after a living artist or active artistic organization. In addition to the main dance company, the organization has two other branches: Cloud Gate 2, founded in 1999, tours local communities and helps develop young dancers and choreographers. Cloud Gate Dance School was founded in 1998 with a view to making dance education more broadly available
(, accessed 5/16/2010).

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