Aussie kids not moving enough? Maybe they could dance!

The 2022 Active Healthy Kids Australia Report Card makes for sober reading. The report card is published every two years by the Asia-Pacific Society for Physical Activity (ASPA) and involves leading researchers in evaluating data on children’s physical activity across ten measures. The Australian report card is also linked to a worldwide comparative index on children’s physical activity coordinated by the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance.

The overall score for Australian children’s physical activity in 2022 is. D-, which is unchanged from 2018 and shows a trend of very little improvement since the first report card in 2014. The D- score means that fewer than a quarter of Australian children meet national guidelines for the daily physical activity required for health and wellbeing (Richards et al. 2022). Several recent studies note the increase in screen time and sedentary play as one cause of this failure (Anjos and Ferraro 2018). We believe that getting more kids away from their devices and into more regular dance activities can help Australia to reimagine physically active lives for children and young adults.

Students from Tarneit Rise Primary School

Dance and paediatric health

Dance is a kind of art therapy involving the psychotherapeutic use of expressive movement through which children can engage creatively in the process of personal development. (Kourkouta et al. 2014)

Dance as an expressive movement has many therapeutic values in paediatric health. It has proven effects in terms of improving physical coordination, ameliorating learning difficulties, building self-confidence and resilience, improving emotional expression, and helping children to relax in response to stressful stimuli.

There is a compelling and growing body of evidence that dance is a form of physical movement that helps children develop physical coordination along with improving muscle and bone strength. Dance also has additional benefits because of its artistic, creative, and imaginative elements when incorporated into the school curriculum (Stevens, McGrath, and Ward 2019). Numerous studies have highlighted the positive impacts of creative physical play on the development of healthy, active, and happy children (Fitzgerald et al. 2022; Sheppard and Broughton 2020). Similarly, there are studies indicating that dance is also effective in helping children with developmental difficulties, such as Autism, to improve their cognitive function and social adaptability (May et al. 2021).

More recently, there has been a broader focus on the role of dance in the positive socialisation of teenagers and young people. Feminist researchers have begun to assess the positive impact that dance has in helping young people come to terms with non-traditional gender roles by breaking down restrictive stereotypes of masculinity and femininity (Watson 2018). Dance is also recognised as an important cultural activity and learning space for Indigenous children that has proven health benefits in First Nations communities (Salmon et al. 2018; McHugh et al. 2019). It has been conclusively shown that access to cultural dance and participation in dance-based ceremonial or celebratory gatherings enhances the quality of life for First Nations children  (Dunphy and Ware 2019). We also know that involvement in organised sports and recreational activities—such as dancing—provides health and social benefits to children in marginalised communities; for example refugees and asylum-seekers (Olliff 2008). Given everything we know about the health benefits of dance for kids across a wide range of demographics, why aren’t governments doing more to promote it, for example by funding more dance in schools and the community as a form of exercise and as a preventative health measure?

Are governments doing enough?

The 2022 Active Kids report card is titled ‘Reboot! Reimagining physically active lives’, and its authors are optimistic about potential future improvements in children’s levels of physical activity. Understandably, this year the report has a particular focus on changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic might have temporarily lowered levels of physical activity—particularly in organised sporting or other pursuits—on the upside, it appears to have also led to a greater family-centred willingness to involve children in new locality-based leisure and exercise activities. The report also notes an upswing in digitally mediated exercise, such as online dance and martial arts classes for kids. This finding also reveals an interesting contradiction in relation to dance and digital media; the growing popularity of Tik Tok with young audiences has sparked a revival in recreational dancing as a viral form of social media content (Warburton 2022). The question is: How do we translate this into more dancing and less screen time? At the same time, we are seeing a small increase in the number of young people who are engaged in dance in an organised way, through classes, studios, and in school-settings.

Students from Tarneit Rise Primary School and Dr. Katrina Rank

Get Active Kids

The Victorian Government is one state administration that is making an effort to improve the numbers when it comes to kids’ physical activity. One measure is the Get Active Kids Voucher Scheme which offers parents a subsidy of $200 towards the cost of organised sport and physical activity, including dance. The vouchers can be used to pay registration or tuition fees, or can be put towards uniforms, specialist clothing, shoes, and equipment.

Ausdance VIC played an important role in securing the inclusion of dance in the Get Active Kids program and the government’s voucher scheme is the result of our advocacy. We proposed the voucher scheme in discussions at an interdepartmental meeting in 2020, and it was adopted in 2021. As a result, over $21 million was allocated to the scheme across many sports and recreational activities. In the second half of 2021 we worked with the Department of Sports and Recreation to expand the scheme to children between 0 and 18 years old. In 2021, 2447 vouchers were given to families for dance-related expenses. $498,000 worth of vouchers were redeemed for dance placing it in the top five activities across the state. The voucher scheme idea has also been implemented in other states and territories where evaluations have shown vouchers reduce the cost of entry into sports and recreational activities; as such they are very beneficial for families, particularly from low SES communities (Reece et al. 2020; Reece et al. 2021).

Alongside our advocacy for the Get Active Kids voucher scheme, Ausdance VIC also has two school-based dance programs for primary students; Blue Sky Dance and Supercharged! 

Blue Sky Dance is a three-year partnership program between Ausdance VIC and the Victorian Department of Education that began in 2021. Blue Sky Dance promotes the benefits of dance to students, teachers, and parents through a program designed to showcase best practice dance education aligned to the Victorian Curriculum rubric for K-10: The Arts, Dance.

Blue Sky Dance provides students and their teachers an opportunity to engage in a great dance education experience. The program runs for 8-weeks per year and is split across two terms. Over the life of the program, Blue Sky Dance will be delivered to tens of thousands of students across hundreds of Victorian schools.

Supercharged! is Ausdance VIC’s contribution to the Victorian government’s Positive Start initiative that was launched at the beginning of the 2022 school year to re-engage primary and secondary students after the COVID-19 disruptions. In 2022, Supercharged! was delivered to 75 schools across the state. Over 8000 students were able to participate in the energetic dance program delivered by a team of qualified instructors. The dance incursions received great feedback from teachers and students who thoroughly enjoyed playing ‘super heroes’. In 2023 Supercharged! will again be delivered across the state.

In 2022 alone, the Blue Sky Dance and Supercharged! programs have reached more than 9,000 primary school students in metropolitan, regional and remote areas of the state. Both programs are managed in partnership with the Department of Education to deliver quality, curriculum-based dance education to schools that have no, or very few, Arts Education programs. These fantastic programs are delivered at no cost to the schools, taking dance to every corner of the state and providing employment opportunities for professional dance educators.

While we are rightly proud of our contribution to getting Victorian kids moving again, there is a lot more to be done right across the country. Dance can make a contribution to getting Aussie kids moving more, and hopefully lift our activity scorecard from a D- to something a little more positive. The Get Active Kids voucher scheme is a proven motivator that could be expanded and made a permanent fixture. Our experience with Blue Sky Dance and Supercharged! also shows that kids love to dance and enjoy the storytelling that goes with the energetic movement of improvised dance.

While dance in school settings is a focus of qualitative academic study in several disciplines, there is little empirical data contributing to our knowledge of just how much dance occurs in schools. In most aggregated data about children’s physical activities in a school setting, dance is not clearly visible or identified. However, there is a working consensus among arts educators (performing and visual arts) that the arts curriculum in schools is undervalued and underfunded. The national lobby group National Advocates for Arts Education (NAAE), of which Ausdance National is a member, has called for Arts Education to be a sixth pillar of national cultural policy that is embedded across all the visual and performing arts. As the Albanese government now considers submissions to its review of National Cultural Policy we will continue our advocacy work to help to keep kids moving and shaking.


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