Savoring Arts Education
By Martha Phelps Cotton
I’m watching my students carefully begin watercolor washes on self-portraits. As they paint across the rough paper, I am struck by how methodically they select colors and work with focused determination. Occasionally, they pause to look at a neighboring student’s choices or share an idea before dipping their brushes anew. Smiling, I realize that these young artists are engaged in the act of savoring!
There is much in our lives that says “hurry up” and be efficient, and there are many pressures pushing us toward activities that can be handled in the briefest time periods. With this current mindset at work, the importance and impact of arts education for our children is enormous, not just for slowing down perception and appreciation, but in many other ways: problem solving, learning tolerance, risk taking, and increasing self confidence, to name only a few. Children who are provided with an experiential arts education can ultimately apply what they have learned to the “real world.” When the flame of the creative spirit is kindled with nature-based artistic experiences and a wide variety of creative endeavors self-exploration and self-discovery are nurtured.
An especially effective way to apply experiential arts education is by using nature as foundation and mirror. In nature students can merge with wind, water, earth, and fire, learning of their strengths; sharing their insights; finding inspiration in the surrounding forms. In the open-air sunlight and greenery of outdoor “classrooms” without walls, projects like mask-making, watercolor painting, drumming circles, improvisational skits and modern dance can teach students about the power of metaphor, imagination, myth and archetype. The forest provides environmental awareness, appreciation for cultural and creative diversity, and the opportunity to experience an exploration of ones artistic relationship with nature. This combination of experiences and events is both invariably rewarding and potentially life altering for everyone involved.
Arts education is the grandmother of experiential learning. By purposefully engaging learners in direct experience arts education connects learners intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully, and physically. As a result, this learning is personal and authentic, and it forms the basis for future experience and awareness. In this nation of kids and adults who are more frequently choosing to watch (computers, television, game boys) rather than play, and to passively be influenced rather than actively experience the fullness of the world around them, experiential education might be considered radical. It is, in fact, simply good teaching that follows the dynamics of learning.
Experiential arts education also enhances self-esteem and confidence through creative expression. By providing an environment that reinforces sense of self through positive feedback and general attitude, children feel safety and support for their individual identities. Providing an environment where kids feel some control over their experience is essential. Even especially shy or very emotionally young children can become actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative, and constructing meaning. They are thus inspired to not only “find their voice,” but to use it later on in the greater community.
Currently there isn’t enough art in our schools or in our children’s lives. But ask almost any parent, and they’ll say that arts education is very important to their child’s well being. Which makes it so surprising that the arts have been allowed to virtually disappear from our children’s learning experiences. Research shows that education in the arts has a positive impact on cognitive development. The arts promote individuality, bolster self-confidence, and improve overall academic performance. The arts can even help troubled youth, providing a deterrent to delinquent behavior.
But the real payoff may be more intrinsic. Students of the arts may become better people, more appreciative of the life around them, more open to possibility, more willing to look at something a little differently, more aware of themselves and their own values, more appreciative of their own abilities. All forms of teaching, of course, should lead to that, but in the educational rush on test scores and high grades, the ability to savor needs to be taught and nurtured. Participation in experiential arts education opens up children’s worlds and minds, and offers them skills they need for well-being, helping them grow to be healthy, appreciative, artistic individuals as well as successful, compassionate citizens.
Martha Phelps Cotton, an educator and mother of five who lives in her birthplace, Ashland, Oregon, is passionate about learning, people, and creative change. After 15 years teaching in public schools Martha established “On Purpose,” a wellness and creative learning practice where she engages her skills as educator, writer, and visual artist to teach and consult. Martha is also the director of Fine Arts at EarthTeach, a summer camp which takes place in a 1680-acre wildlife preserve, demonstration forest, and outdoor educational setting near Ashland. With two weeklong summer day camps for up to 125 participants in each session, this season’s classes include various types of music (singing, fiddling, guitar, and drumming); theatre arts (comedy, stage combat, circus arts, improvisation, and short plays); dance (modern, traditional Indian, and rhythmic); yoga and movement play; visual arts (watercolor, sketch; sculpting with clay, natural resources, and recycled materials); mask making; jewelry making; and written arts (journaling, poetry, prose, and song writing). Session I is June 20th–24th, 9am-3pm, for ages 7-8, 9-11, 12-16. Session II is June 27th-July 1st, 9am–3pm for youth ages 6-8, 9-12. Extended care is available each day. For information or to register call (541) 601-4718; finearts@etfp.org; or visit www.etfp.org/finearts. The Way Foundation, a non-profit charitable trust, sponsors Fine Arts at EarthTeach.