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“Art can heal.” I have always held this belief close to my heart. Through my own years as a student in the arts, this sentiment has remained relentlessly true. Now that I am in teaching roles, I’m humbled to share the healing capabilities of the arts with youth of varying ages and abilities. The happiness and comfort the arts can deliver reaches across all mediums: dance, visual arts, music and everything in between. To see the creative spark lit within a child is the warmest feeling, and I hope every person gets to experience that warmth.

Artists Creating Together (ACT) is a nonprofit in Grand Rapids that is dedicated to providing artistic experiences for people of all abilities. From preschoolers to adults, ACT is a leader in the arts community for empowering individuals, with and without disabilities, through numerous art forms. I recently had the opportunity to be a Teaching Artist in their Early Childhood Art Exploration program. I taught hands-on art experiences to students in Early Childhood Special Education at South Godwin Elementary. Beginning in January, I spent my Wednesdays at South Godwin and taught approximately 40 students of varying abilities a new art lesson each week.

These kids are some of the brightest little lights I’ve ever met.

When I began to design my curriculum, I knew I wanted to infuse the energy of ArtPrize into my lesson plans. The ArtPrize Discovery Deck was my jumping point and felt like a natural inspiration. The deck is an educational resource developed by the ArtPrize Learning & Engagement Team. Each of the deck’s 12 cards highlights a different past ArtPrize winner and includes a hands-on art challenge inspired by that winning piece. 

I adapted several of these activities to be more accessible and specialized towards my students: children ages 3 to 5 with a cognitive and/or physical disability or developmental delay, all of varying severity. A key intent of my lessons was to bring the educational nature of ArtPrize into their classroom in a highly tangible, sensory-activating way. I wanted the students to learn through play, and in doing so, create their own ArtPrize-inspired artwork.

Every class started with my greeting, “Hello, artists!” and the kids gathered around a half-circle table. I would explain the activity and show the students the ArtPrize entry that would be our inspiration that day. They were then free to create and practice their artistic process. We focused on the sensory experiences of exploring the materials, listening to instructions, and making happy messes that all resulted in channeling their creativity into a masterpiece. At the end of the day, they got to take their artwork home as well as the Discovery Deck card that went along with that activity. These cards were keepsakes that students were excited to collect, and parents enjoyed recognizing ArtPrize entries from the past.

There was never a shortage of smiles during art time with these students! Laughter and glee washed over their faces, much like the paint across their papers. They’d gaze at their final works with pride and celebrated their friends’ works, too. Every week was a reminder for the kids that they are artists who are capable of taking a blank paper or a bucket of materials and creating something beautiful. 

Sometimes a student would be hesitant to participate in the artmaking or they would express that they were overwhelmed by the transition from one activity to the next. More times than not, their stress and tension would evaporate once their mind was directed to creating.

The art experience would often wrap up a frustrated student in a soft wave of calm. Witnessing this therapeutic and meaningful effect of art was profound for me as an educator.

A major takeaway I felt from being a Teaching Artist with these students is how art can connect us without words. Many of my students were nonverbal, which added a new layer of instruction for me to navigate as a teacher. I knew that if a child was upset, it was likely because they were feeling big emotions and didn’t know how to share those big emotions. In these instances, I’d encourage the child to focus on the tactile experience of the activity in an effort to redirect their focus. Sometimes a couple deep breaths, a gentle voice, and a reminder to them that they are safe is just what they needed to hear to change their tune.

Some of the students had limited mobility, making the kinesthetic elements of artmaking and exploring materials even more important. Several students had a visual impairment, so providing them with fun-to-touch supplies that engaged their senses made their artmaking experience more impactful. They loved to feel the variety of soft and rigid textiles, compare the crinkling sounds of various paper types, and use their hands to investigate and play with the art. 

ACT encourages “hand over hand” instruction, where an adult physically helps the student hold a tool (such as a paintbrush) and our hands work together to create. By my final week of instruction, many students who once struggled to grip such tools on their own showed significant strides in their motor skills and dexterity. Learning skills like these empower students to feel more autonomous in their artmaking, increase their communication and listening skills, and build their confidence in their own mobility.

I would be remiss to not shine a spotlight on the teachers, paraeducators, nurses, aides, and occupational therapists in the Early Childhood Special Education classrooms at South Godwin (and everywhere). Each of them exudes such compassion, patience, and nurturing affection to every child. They are true champions for their students and demonstrate advocacy with every detail of their character.

The sentiment that “art can heal” was evident in the classrooms at South Godwin in such a vivid and enlightening way. To see a student filled with pure happiness and peace of mind while creating art, and to see their growth week by week, was deeply affirming. The arts have the power to connect us and foster growth in everyone regardless of age or ability. Creativity is not only a means of expression we all need, but it can illuminate us from the inside out and soothe worries. If teaching at South Godwin solidified anything for me, it is that the healing and remedial nature of the arts is inherent in all of us. This was an amazing experience.

“Before a child talks, they sing. Before they write, they draw. As soon as they stand, they dance. Art is fundamental to human expression.” — Phylicia Rashad

By Allison Palm on