I’m not an expert in brain development, but I taught long enough that I’ve acquired some basic knowledge of how the brain grows. In short, young brains are infinitely malleable, and children soak up everything to which they are exposed, which is why children learn second languages much easier when they are 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 than when they are 12 or 13. At very young ages, children’s minds are forming based upon what they need to know, and as they are exposed to new learning and new experiences, their brain forms new pathways to accommodate the learning, enabling them to take on more skills and knowledge. It’s a use it or lose it sort of thing.
Anyone who has been around young children knows what sponges they are. My niece (whom I will call Izzy for the sake of this column), as young at sixteen months, was intentional in how she copied things her mother would do. By twenty-seven months or so, she was copying phrases from her mother, wanted to wash dishes like her mother, make dinner like her mother, and so on. It’s like the television commercials tell us, children learn from the adults around them—be it how to discriminate, how to cope with sadness, how to handle anger, how to be in relationships, how to forgive, how to laugh, even how to walk and talk.
At some point, the brain slows down in the process of forming new pathways, and as the child ages, the ability to develop in some areas of the brain decreases (which explains why learning a new language at 13 is much harder than at 5). By the time we reach our late 20s, our brain begins to shed cells that we don’t use.
Bear with me, this is getting to musicals.
I am one of the most horribly uncoordinated people you will ever meet. As a teenager (when my athletic brother would delight in reminding me of this), I always thought it was just the way I was born—I was born to be the reader/writer/thinker of the family. But now that I know what I do about brain development, I realize that the athletic, coordinated, kinesthetic part of my brain never had a chance to develop. Whereas my brother somehow managed to get into sports (my parents weren’t so much “guiders” as they were “let the chips fall where they may” types when it came to fostering talents and skills, which is not a complaint or judgment but an observation on my part), my early memories are of my mom reading to me and of me taking delight in Disney book and tape sets. When you spend a lot of your time playing with Duplo blocks, green army men, and playing inactive games with your friends, you don’t develop a lot of physical coordination or skill.
This is exactly why I want Izzy to have a variety of exciting and interesting experiences even though she is only three. This is why I tried taking her to an art museum at two-and-a-half (we saw about two paintings before she was asking to go), to the zoo, and so on. I want her mind to be engaged and intrigued by new experiences from a very early age.
I have long been wanting to take Izzy to a musical, but obviously, at three, she still has a good four or five years before she’s ready for that. My favorite thing would be to take her to a final dress rehearsal of a high school musical so that she can experience the singing and dancing from a young, malleable age without the worry that she will interrupt the people around her. Not knowing any high school choreographers or directors well, this hasn’t happened.
That isn’t to say she hasn’t experienced movie musicals before. She loves Hairsrpay (when she was two and a few months, she would sing along to the “Oh oh oh”s in “Good Morning Baltimore”), The Little Mermaid, and Enchanted, and thanks to me, she’s been around as Dreamgirls has played (as well as a bevy of Disney animated musicals). But there’s something about live theatre that is more powerful. And if live theatre can’t be found, a musical on the big screen is an acceptable Plan B.
The perfect solution, then, was High School Musical 3 at the discount theater, where she could sit in the back and be easily removed if she caused a stir without great loss of money.
The narrative of the story didn’t particularly hold her attention. It didn’t take long before she got antsy, but let me tell you, she loved the musical numbers. This child has been dancing around since she learned to walk, and no matter how distracted she was during the dialogue, she was glued during the musical numbers. There’s a scene in the movie where Troy and Chad dance in a junkyard, and she was on her feet shaking her booty during the whole thing.
Yep, High School Musical 3 did the trick.
Obviously, I love musicals, and I want Izzy to love them to. It’s the same reason why my brother bought her ice skates and took her to a hockey game. Not yet having children of my own, I need to pass my love for musicals on to my niece. In a perfect world, I would have money to enroll her in a dance class and all that, but to me, this was really more about exposing her to the arts, allowing new pathways to form in her brain, to see exciting things in the world and to allow her to ponder them.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Take a kid to a musical or a play. It doesn’t even have to be Broadway (though, obviously, a splashy Broadway show or tour excites like nothing else possibly can). Once they are a theatergoing age, the younger you can get them there, the more a love of the art will develop. Kids need to see great theatre that excites them and fosters within them a lifelong pattern of supporting the arts. Form new pathways while you still can.
I have a pseudo nephew. When he was young, I always wanted to take him out places and show him a world he wasn’t getting at home, but I allowed my misperceptions (about over-stepping my boundaries with his mother’s live-in boyfriend—one experience of two that has caused me to see live-in relationships as an effective way to permanently damage children but that’s for another blog site) to hold me back. When I finally found the courage to overcome that, I treated him to the Broadway tour of Urinetown (complete with the cast recording, a souvenir program, and a fancy dinner), and it was a magical night. We still talk about that show, and whenever I can, I still take him to theatre (to date Thoroughly Modern Millie, On the Record, Brooklyn, a high school production of The Pajama Game, and a regional production of Altar Boyz).
I don’t know what will be touring when she gets to be of age to sit through a Broadway show without interrupting the people around her, but thinking of my beloved Izzy, I can’t help but be thankful for Wicked. Perhaps something else will come along, but if not, I would be thrilled with Wicked as Izzy’s First Broadway Musical.
the Broadway Mouth
January 14, 2009