Please Wait a Moment

Behind the Curtain Blog

NDEO's "Behind the Curtain" Blog features articles written by NDEO members about dance and dance education topics as well as periodic updates on NDEO programs and services. This is a FREE resource available to ALL.


Dance Activities to Nuture Delaying Gratification and Impulse Control

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Connie Bergstein Dow, MFA. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.

There are so many benefits of creative movement for young children!  One of the most important is the fostering of social and emotional learning (SEL) in young children.  Some of these SEL skills include:

Self –Awareness (body awareness, spatial awareness, control of one’s speed, and control of one’s direction in space)

Understanding Personal Space vs. Shared Space

Group Cooperation

Self-Control and Delaying Gratification

Listening, Understanding, and Responding to Instructions

Reasoning and Problem-Solving Skills (individually or in a group)


This post is about one of these:  the importance of nurturing a child’s ability to delay gratification and strengthen self-control.  This generation of children is growing up in a world where they have instant access to information, technology, and media.  Structured activities can help counteract this frenzy of stimuli, and help children to slow down, tune into their bodies and surroundings, and learn that sometimes waiting and anticipating an outcome can be fun and rewarding.

Lauren Tamm, writing for the University of Cincinnati website Kids Activities Blog  asks this question:

What if I told you holding your boundary firm and making your child wait was the single most important skill you can teach your child. . . 

Tamm continues: Research shows that children with worse self-control (less persistence, more impulsivity and poor attention regulation) at ages 3-11 tend to have worse health, earn less, and commit more crimes 30 years later than those with better self-control as children. (Source: the book Zero to Five, by Tracy Cutchlow).

Sarah Ramirez, writing for the website A Fine Parent, says her article 5 Easy Ways to Teach Kids Self-Control outlines some more of the reasons it is so important to nurture this trait in children:

  • Better emotional coping skills
  • Higher rates of educational attainment
  • Higher SAT scores
  • Lower BMI 
  • Lower divorce rates
  • Lower rates of addiction

WOW!  Amazing.  And yes, research shows that children can be taught to delay gratification.

Ramirez explains that the above conclusions are the result of long-term follow-up research from the famous “marshmallow test” conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel and other researchers in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s at Stanford University:

One by one, 4-year-old children were presented with a marshmallow and informed that they could either eat a marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and receive two marshmallows. Some children gobbled the marshmallow immediately, while others managed to wait the full 15 minutes and receive the reward of a second marshmallow.

The researchers continued to follow up with the children for the next several decades.  They found that the 4-year-olds who had successfully waited for 15 minutes differed in significant ways from the children who couldn’t wait . . . Walter Mischel concluded that ‘preschoolers tended to wait longer when they were given effective strategies.’  In other words, self-control and delayed gratification are essential life skills – but they can be learned.


I have taken ideas from the marshmallow test, Sarah Ramirez, and Lauren Tamm's University of Cincinnati Kids Activities Blog, and created four simple movement activities, along with some ideas for variations:  


This activity is a type of follow-the-leader game, which helps children listen and respond to instructions.  It also allows children to practice controlling their body movements, and become aware of the speed and direction of these movements.

Explain to the children that when they watch you, they will do the same things you are doing, by imagining they were looking into a mirror. Practice a few easy movements with your arm or leg, making sure they use the corresponding mirror-image arm or leg. Put on some upbeat music, and, starting out slowly, move as the children mirror your movements. 

You can begin by trying the game sitting on the floor and using upper-body movements while the children get the hang of the mirror game, then progress to standing.  Challenge the children by turning, bending, jumping, moving side-to-side, and trying balancing shapes on one leg.


The wonderful thing about dance/freeze activities is that they are easy and accessible (all you need is music!), children love them, and they are great for helping the children practice following instructions, listening, and body and impulse control.     

Stop Sign Dance and Freeze

Choose an upbeat musical selection.  Use a homemade or purchased stop sign. Ask the children what it is, and what the word means.  Explain that when you hold up the stop sign, they should freeze:  Don't move a muscle until you hear the music again. While the music is playing, you may dance, but each time I hold up the stop sign, you freeze!  


Expand the game with different ideas for the freeze:  The next time the music stops, prompt them to freeze in a twisty shape, or an upside down shape, or a shape with only one hand and one foot touching the floor. 

Here is a Dance/Freeze variation with additional practice for children to control the speed at which they are moving:    

Traffic Signals Dance and Freeze

Instead of a stop sign, cut out three large circles from construction paper or cardboard, one green, one yellow, and one red.  Use a lively musical selection. 

Explain to the children:  When I hold up the green light, you may dance as fast as you like.  When I hold up the yellow light, you will dance slowly, like a slow-motion action scene in a movie.  When I hold up the red light, freeze, and don't move a muscle!

A white woman with gray hair, wearing a white tshirt that reads


Helping children to master the skill of waiting their turn can easily be accomplished through movement activities.  Here is a simple lesson that also allows children to practice large motor skills. 

Start with the children in a line or gathered on one side of a space.  Ask one child to name an animal, and then to move across the space like that animal.  You can then have the other children try that same movement all together across the space.  Then move on to the next child’s turn to choose an animal and show the movement. 

Free Dance:  Once the activity has been accomplished, and children have waited their turns to go across, play some music, and allow them to dance freely about animals. 

A young boy in a yellow long sleeve shirt jumps up in the air while two young students and a teacher watch.


Books, stories and poems provide a wealth of material for sparking young children’s imaginations.  Explaining that they will listen as you read the story, and then they will dance about it, helps children to learn to listen quietly and attentively.  Then they can unleash their creativity and energy as they respond to the story in movement. 


Calm an energetic class at the end of the day with a game about settling down, helping children to tune into their bodies, be aware of their senses (sight, smell, hearing), and relax.

This can also be used as a transitional activity, to quiet children down before moving on to something else.

Say to the children:

 Have you ever been camping in the woods?  Have you sat around a campfire?  Let’s imagine we are spending the night out in the woods.  It is a cold, clear night.  Let’s build a campfire to get warm!  We will build it in the center of our circle.

Continue with the following movement prompts:

Let’s imagine we are gathering wood.  Bring it to this spot in the center of the room.

Put the small pieces in, and now I will pretend to light it.  Now let’s put some big logs on the fire!

Warm up your hands and feet.  Do you smell the wood fire?  Pine needles? What else?

Let's lie back and climb into our sleeping bags.  Look up at the sky.  What do you see?  Be very quiet.  What sounds do you hear in the forest at night? Be aware of your breathing, and feel your heart beat.

a group of students lay on their backs

Note from the author:  The photos are my property and I have permissions from the school and parents to use them.  The photo shoot was at North Avondale Montessori, in Cincinnati, and the photographer was Kevin Wauligman.

Connie Dow grew up in Cincinnati, attended Denison University, and then received her MFA from the University of Michigan. She performed professionally for ten years in dance companies in both the US and Latin America. She has been active in the field of dance education for more than forty years. She has written two books, both published by Redleaf Press:  Dance, Turn, Hop, Learn! Enriching Movement Activities for Preschoolers (2006); and One, Two, What Can I Do? Dance and Music for the Whole Day (2011).  She has written articles in journals and magazines, and a picture book about movement that will be published by Free Spirit Publishing next year. Her dance journey, from training to performing, to teaching children and adults, to writing and appreciating all forms of dance, has led her to an understanding of the importance of movement in our lives. She continues to share her passion for dance by writing, teaching, volunteering, and creating community dance projects, as well as offering movement workshops to early childhood professionals. She feels strongly that dance, and the other arts, are not ‘extras;’ they are essential and transformational forces in our lives.  

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