Carefully, Luciana Amaral places three small wooden sticks into a pattern on the floor; one stick points forward, one sideways and the next one in a diagonal line. Twenty pairs of eyes follow her every move intensely. She stands next to her finished figure and stretches out her arms to the front of the room, lifts her left knee and tilts her upper body to the side. Her body makes the exact same shape as the sticks on the floor. The audience holds its breath in anticipation. The room falls completely silent; you can hear a pin drop. Then she quickly hops from one open space between the sticks to the next, back to where she came from. The children erupt into clapping.

Learning through creativity is the main focus of the Emei Santos Dumont school, a public school for 4-6 year olds based in São Paulo, Brazil. For years Luciana, a teacher at the school, and her colleagues have been teaching through art and movement. The school coordinator, Samantha Schleumer, has been supporting her team of teachers to use this creative approach. Unfortunately, recent changes in the São Paulo city and state government, which include less funding and support for teachers and parents, have made it difficult for the school to keep the curriculum in its original state.

Dance class at Emei Santos Dumont

The school uses a holistic approach for teaching children, which means every teacher decides on a general theme for that year and integrates every school subject into that theme. This semester the children in Luciana’s class are learning about space. Not in the sense of outer space, but the space that surrounds them, their own personal space and the space between them and another person. The children learn about the subject by reading, writing, painting, coloring, playing, singing and dancing.

During the dance class for example, the children follow Luciana’s instructions and create their own lines and patterns on the floor. They then copy the lines with their bodies and dance around the sticks to fill the empty space between them. So next to talking about the theme and drawing the lines on paper, the children experience it with their bodies. They embody the theme. Therefore, they learn about one theme in multiple ways, which makes every subject equally important.

São Paulo

There aren’t many schools in Brazil that use the approach that Samantha and her teachers work with. Most public schools in São Paulo focus on providing children with core subjects and basic needs, like food and shelter. “These are difficult times,” Samantha tells me. “Some of the children have stopped coming to school because the parents can’t afford tuition anymore. And for many children, this used to be the only place where they actually were provided with a proper meal.”

Dance class at Emei Santos Dumont

Dance teacher, teacher trainer and choreographer Isabel Marques, the remarkable woman I introduced in my previous blog, has been working with Luciana and Samantha for several years. Isabel tells me it has been very difficult to integrate dance in the São Paulo school system. Every time the government changes, the curriculum has to be developed all over again. This means she has been fighting the same fight for over 20 years. This both surprises and amazes me. “Dance in school should be a right, not a privilege” she says with a strong conviction.

And despite the constant changes, Isabel is still optimistic about the quality of education at this school and other schools where she trained teachers. “I trust the teachers,” she says, “they are committed.” Luckily, rules in Brazil are easily broken and because there is not much interference from the government, schools can basically choose how to shape their own program. This means that even without the help of official funds, the schools will try to maintain the same curriculum they’ve been developing for years.

São Paulo

And this means the children in Luciana’s class will be dancing their way through school for at least another year. “I wish we could do this every day!”, one boy screams loudly when he runs back to the classroom, where the children sit in a circle for a couple of minutes before they go outside to play. There they continue moving into shapes and patterns across the playground, and they fill up the empty spaces of the climbing rack moving their bodies in all sorts of directions. What might seem like innocent play, turns out to be another playful learning experience.

“We are creators because we are human” – Paulo Freire

Muito obgrigado Isabel for connecting me with this beautiful school and its amazing teachers!