Tips & Tricks for using Picture Books in Children’s Dance Classes

By Danielle Pierce-Master, MA Dance / Edited by Samantha Bellerose, B.Ed, Dip.Dance (Performing Arts)

Picture books are a wonderful way to add novelty, joy, and creative expression in your dance class! You can use a picture book to connect to a dance concept, to inspire improvisation or dance making, to simply to help deepen your relationship to your students and to develop your class community. Shared stories, like dance experiences, help us to connect to each other.

Some great picture books to use in a dance and movement class include Sometimes I Like to Curl Up in a Ball by Charles Fuge, From Head to Toe by Eric Carle, Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson and I Got the Rhythm, written by Connie Schofield.

Picture books are an important tool in the dance teacher’s toolbox, especially in early childhood. Read on for more about why, and some ways that you can bring books to life in your dance class!

This post contains affiliate links to books and resources.

Why are Picture Books Great in Children’s Dance Classes?

1. They Break the Ice!

When a young child is new to a dance class, it is possible that they have no idea what to expect, and many young children participate only through observation for the first several weeks. A story time experience probably feels more familiar and can help the child to feel safe in the dance environment. Including characters who the children may know helps them to connect to their prior knowledge and feel comfortable. I had an entire toddler class completely transform once I brought in a picture book that featured Elmo! 

2. They help cultivate creativity and imagination

Early childhood is about play, exploration, and language development. Lisa Johnson, a New York-City based dance educator, says, “Children love stories and creative play. It’s a natural way to engage their curiosity, use their imagination, and motivate them to explore movement. Books help to visualize environment, establish themes, create characters, and are wonderfully expressive.” 

3. They can inspire new ideas for the teacher

As a teacher, it is important to stay creative even when teaching the “same” content over and over again. The concept may be the same, but the students in front of you are different every time; each student interprets a story or idea differently and that can inspire you! 

4. They can help dancers understand complex movement concepts

Concepts of dynamics can be tricky for young children to understand, but picture books can bring those concepts to life. Daria Fitzgerald, an NYC public school early childhood teacher, says, “I can also help students better understand dance concepts by relating them to events, characters, words, and images in books.  For example, a story about a garden where worms and birds live might help students understand the concept of level.”

5. Embodying a story can deepen a student’s comprehension

Listening to a story and looking at the pictures is an important part of early learning, but for children who have challenges with auditory processing, it can be really tricky! Having a story repeated and being given the opportunity to physicalize it in their own body can help a child to understand the story more fully.

6. A seated moment in dance class can help the students to recuperate and be more energetic in their next activity

It can be incredibly challenging for young children to keep up their energy for the entirety of class. It is important for the teacher to structure lower-exertion activities or recuperations so that the students do not spend all of their energy before class is over. A seated story for three to seven minutes gives the children a chance to sit and rest their bodies so they can dance to the story with gusto.

How should I use a picture book in a children’s dance class?

As a teacher, you should use books in your class in a way that is authentic to your teaching. I have found three different approaches helpful depending on the book and the age of the students. 

When presenting a book, it is useful to ask the students if they have seen it before, or if they have any guesses as to what it might be about based on the cover. Sometimes previewing and perusing the pictures can be interesting too, depending on how much time you have or want to devote to the book.

Johnson says, “I’ve been challenged in deciding whether to read the entire story and then do the dance activity… or to read parts of the story and go back and forth between the book and the dancing.” (I have done both, and explain both strategies more below).” I’ve made the judgment based on the attention span of the students, the overall class dynamic, and in factoring how I can present an atmosphere for quality movement. I prefer to read through the entire book first, so I try to choose shorter stories,” she says.

Read to enjoy, then dance the story

This is the approach I use most often. I let the students sit and read to them. When I am done, I read it again and the students perform either the explicit movement of the text or the movement idea that I’ve extrapolated from the text. If it isn’t a direct translation of words to movement, this is a great place to have the students generate ideas too. For example, if the book says, “Sometimes I like to get in a real mess, with mud on my feet and my hands and my chest,” we might focus on body parts and do dances that lead with the feet, hands, and chest, but I might also ask the students what else we might do to dance in the mud. Typically, that yields an exploration of rolling and throwing, and splashing actions.

Read a page, stop and dance a concept, come back

If a group of students has a really hard time being still and listening to the story, or if the story is just too long or dense to go through twice in its entirety, I will read a page, we dance the page, and then we come back to read more. One story this strategy is particularly useful for is The Nutcracker. You can find my creative dance activities to go with that story here.

Read as a group, identifying movement words, then explore the movement words and develop a dance

I find that this approach is most satisfying with older students, but can help to produce some really fruitful dances! Reading a text and generating a list of action words within the text reinforces students’ understanding of what verbs are and offers a list of not-as-typical actions to spark improvisation. After trying out all of the words, dancers can choose 3 to create a movement sentence that they can use to help them build a dance.

What are some challenges when using picture books in Dance class?

Sometimes it can be tricky for young kids to sit still (or even just safely) to hear a story. If a class has children who speak many different languages, it can also be challenging to choose stories that are accessible to everyone. “When I first started teaching preschoolers, I sometimes picked books that were too long to keep my students engaged during dance class,” Fitzgerald says. “Now, I understand that less is more. Even a very short book can have a great amount of material to explore. We will often dance about one book over the course of several lessons. This helps students better comprehend the text and increases their focus when we dance.”

What are the best books to use in Dance class?

The best books to use in dance class are the ones that inspire you! Remember that picture books need to offer students an opportunity to see themselves reflected, so it is important to keep your book selections diverse and representative of all members of your community. Here is a list with some of my absolute favorites and a few activities I like to do with them.

1. Sometimes I Like To Curl Up in a Ball

Sometimes I Like to Curl Up in a Ball by Charles Fuge and Vicki Churchill is one of my favorite books for class. It offers a variety of movement inspirations on each page! I use it to explore the Language of Dance concepts of flexion, extension, stillness and traveling, as well as body parts, size, speed, and balance. 

2. From Head to Toe

From Head to Toe by Eric Carle is a wonderful book to explore body parts, actions, and animals.  It is also available in Spanish. 

3. Shake a Leg

Shake a Leg by Constance Allen and Maggie Swanson is a Sesame Street book that goes through simple actions and body parts. As I mentioned before, I got great street-cred with the preschool set by using this book in class!

4. Plants Can’t Sit Still

Plants Can’t Sit Still by Rebecca E. Hirsch with illustrations by Mia Posada is full of beautiful illustrations and vibrant action words that inspire movement. At the end of the book, there are even facts about the different plants featured in the text. This is a great choice for springtime gardening season.

5. Beautiful Ballerina

Beautiful Ballerina by Marliyn Nelson and Susan Kuklin features ballet students from the Dance Theater of Harlem School. I often use this book for lessons about body shapes and have the students replicate the shapes in the book. The photos are gorgeous!

6. Harold and the Purple Crayon

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson is a beloved favorite that inspires movement in different pathways. Harold also creates a variety of objects which offer different movement qualities to explore. I’ve borrowed some ideas from my friend Miss Maria, and even created a performance piece inspired by this book, using purple ribbon wands.

7. The Squiggle

The Squiggle by Carole Lexa Schaeffer and Pierr Morgan also inspires many different pathways, but I like to focus on the onomatopoeia in the story. I put the words on chart paper: 

“Slither slish, push a pat, snap tada, crack-crickle hiss, tug kaboom, ripple shh, ah-woosh.” Each dancer (or pair of dancers depending on the size of the class) gets to make a movement for a line of text, and then we say the text and do the movements together. After that, I gave the kids some yarn and asked them to use their own imaginations and come up with some other ways that they could dance with string.

8. Panda Bear Panda Bear What Do You See

Panda Bear Panda Bear What Do You See by Eric Carle features endangered animals and action words. The animals vary nicely between land, sky, and water, lending this book to work well for exploring levels.

9. Dance with the Animals

Dance with the Animals illustrated by Ella Bailey offers a different animal poem on each page, offering suggestions of a range of movement qualities to go with each animal. 

10. Hop Jump

Hop Jump by Ellen Stoll Walsh is a story about being your own person (or frog). It focuses on hopping, jumping, leaping, and dancing. The movement ideas are simple, but this leaves a lot of room for exploration of those actions using different dance concepts and choreographic structures. 

11. I Got the Rhythm

Fitzgerald offered a favorite too! I Got the Rhythm, written by Connie Schofield – Morrison and illustrated by Frank Morrison. After reading the story, we practice clapping, stomping, and tapping rhythms using call and response. Then, students each take a turn sharing their own clap/stomp/tap rhythm. We also explore action words from the story, such as pop, hop, snap, walk, knock, shake, catch, and blink, using different body parts and speeds.

12. Honeybee’s Busy Day

Johnson also shared a favorite, Honeybee’s Busy Day by Richard Fowler. The bees travel to different colored flowers in a garden and pass animal friends along the way. I place colored spots in varied spaces in the room to represent a flower garden. The children hold a yellow scarf in each hand pretending they have wings stemming from their backs and off they go to fly, whirling through space to their destinations. They visit each “flower” and perform rapid tip-toes to collect nectar and keep their wings flying. They come across swimming ducks, jumping frogs, hopping rabbits and more on their adventure until they end up at home in their beehive. 

13. Once Upon a Dance

Though I haven’t used them in class, the Once Upon a Dance series includes cute stories with movement guides together. They might be a good place to start if you are nervous about using books in class.

More Resources

As Lincoln Center Aesthetics Scholar Maxine Greene is quoted, “there’s always more!” Spend some time at your local library or bookstore and see what ideas come to YOU! Here are some other great resources about using books in your classes:

Picture Books and Pirouettes

Book to Boogie

Maria’s Mover’s

If you head over to Dance Parent 101 webiste there is also a resource page with lots of different books about dance for kids as well!

Danielle Pierce-Master

Danielle Pierce-Master has taught dance in the New York City Metro Area since 2004, working with children from 18 months and up. She trained in Dance Pedagogy at the Creative DanceCenter in Seattle and has an MA in Dance Education from New York University. Danielle lives in Westport, Connecticut with her husband and two children.

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