Early Childhood

Institute Puts Professional Artists In Little Ones’ Classrooms

By Linda Jacobson — November 07, 2001 6 min read
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Most of the children in Kris Stringer’s preschool class, here along California’s border with Mexico, have never felt the onset of a Northern winter.

But with the help of a friendly, big-eyed, stuffed tree—brought to life by puppeteer Ingrid Crepeau—they’ve seen orange, brown, and red leaves fall to the ground, watched a mouse and a rabbit burrow under the ground to stay warm, and flown small bird puppets south for the season.

“He looks like an octopus,” a dark-haired little boy said as he watched Ms. Crepeau cover the tree’s “feet” with a blanket.

“Those are tree roots,” she told him. “Trees use their roots to keep from falling down.”

An Emmy Award-winning performer, Ms. Crepeau is one of more than 200 artists affiliated with the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts. The Vienna, Va.-based organization places performing artists in preschool classrooms and child-care centers for one- and seven-week residencies.

The goal of the 20-year-old program is to enhance the curriculum and give teachers new strategies.

But as Katy Roberson, the director of this 700-pupil preschool center in the South Bay Union School District, can attest, the Wolf Trap artists’ work is now focusing more specifically on building young children’s literacy and language development.

“All I know is that we have kids talking that didn’t talk,” she said one day recently.

The Literacy Connection

Whether it’s banging out the syllables of a child’s name on a drum or recognizing the beginning, middle, and end of a story, the links between the arts and what researchers call “emergent literacy” are numerous, said Miriam C. Flaherty, the director of education at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

“If we are going where the teachers are going, then that means that the artists must be trained,” she said. “They have to know where the literacy connection is.”

The institute looks for artists, who are not only professionals in their discipline—whether it’s drama, music, or movement—but who also have experience in early-childhood education.

For example, Bobbi Lucas, the second artist spending a week here at VIP Village, as the preschool is called, is a professional dancer who also has a degree in special education. Because of her training, she can adapt her work to the particular needs of the children.

Sitting on the floor in a class of severely mentally disabled children, she used a small keyboard and basic movements to help the youngsters develop gross motor skills, while showing them that they can “talk” with their bodies.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” she says to the beat as she shrugs her shoulders up and down.

After recognizing the pattern in the music, the children began to anticipate her movements and bobbed their heads before she did.

Later, in a regular education class of 3- and 4-year- olds, Ms. Lucas showed how something as simple as a pile of sheer, white scarves can encourage the children’s conversation and imagination.

“I’m Super Girl,” said one child after she tied the scarf around her shoulders.

Ms. Lucas and the children used the scarves to tell a story about a young rabbit that thought the sound of the wind was all kinds of frightening creatures. Over a 20-minute period, the children used the fabric to become ghosts, they slithered it along the floor like snakes, and they sat on the scarves to fly on their magic carpets out of “storyland.”

“When we give the children props, it forces their participation,” Ms. Flaherty said.

‘Not a Puppet Show’

The artists’ work is almost always drawn from a book. And one of the intentions of the residencies, Ms. Flaherty said, is to allow the artists to take their cues from what the teachers are already doing in the classroom.

“It’s how to get the book off the page and into the children,” she explained. “It’s not a puppet show.”

After watching her share of traveling performers who do whole-school assemblies, Ms. Roberson found the institute’s approach refreshing. The artists get to know the children, the preschool director said, and they also provide professional development for the teachers.

This particular week, Ms. Lucas and Ms. Crepeau met with the teachers in “clinics” before school to discuss what they had tried and how the children were responding. The hope is that the teachers will look for creative ways to use the arts in their teaching after the residency is completed. That’s why the institute insists that the artists work with only a few classes over the course of their visits.

When Ms. Crepeau did a lesson about baby dinosaurs—with some hand puppets made from purple gardening gloves—teacher Kelly Sullivan eagerly jumped in with her own puppet and began “feeding” the finger puppets held up by all the children.

“The 3-year-olds are so active,” said Ms. Sullivan, whose students range in age from 3 to 5. “I’m amazed at what she is able to make them do. They are so in the moment.”

The program also includes parents in the mix.

At VIP Village—the initials stand for Very Important Preschoolers—Ms. Crepeau led a crowded, lunchtime workshop involving more than 60 parents and their children.

After acting out the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, using just her hands, she showed the parents how to make animal puppets from paper plates, tube socks, and sheets of “fun foam,"a smooth material that is easy to cut.

The Marks Children Make

A 1998 report from the Arts Education Partnership, a project of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, noted that there is a natural fit between early-childhood education and the arts.

“The arts motivate and engage children in learning, stimulate memory and facilitate understanding, enhance symbolic communication, promote relationships, and provide an avenue for building competence,” the report said.

Music and drama, Ms. Flaherty remarked, provide opportunities for rhyming, alliteration, and building vocabulary.

Benefits are also seen in children’s experiences with the visual arts, said Thomas Cahill, the executive director of Studio in a School, a New York City program that places artists in schools to work with teachers, students, and parents. The program’s early-childhood division is working in 59 preschools, child-care centers, and Head Start programs in the city.

Each Studio in a School residency, which includes working with children one day a week for six weeks, involves mixing and managing paint, molding and modeling materials, and building things.

Part of the artistic process for young children, Mr. Cahill said, is describing what they have made.

“Art brings with it this incredible kind of discussion,” he said. Children “love the marks they make,” he added. “They name them and they tell stories about them.”

The role of arts in the classroom—whether they are simply an add-on or are viewed as an integral part of learning—is an issue of some debate.

Last year, researchers involved in Harvard University’s Project Zero, a study of learning, thinking, and creativity in the arts, found that acting out stories enhances children’s verbal skills, including reading readiness.

But the researchers, Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland, found no such relationships involving other art forms, such as a link between learning to play an instrument and achievement in reading or mathematics.

They concluded, and many agree, that more research is needed to determine the effect arts education can have on children’s academic progress.

As with the Wolf Trap institute, Studio in a School encourages teachers to think of themselves as artists who will continue using the arts in their instruction after the professionals are gone.

In fact, it is the teachers’ use of the arts later on that determine whether Wolf Trap’s artists leave a lasting impression at the schools they visit, according to Alan Yaffe, the director of the graduate program in arts administration at the University of Cincinnati.

“If you focus on teachers, you are going to have the desired impacts on students,” said Mr. Yaffe, who is conducting a three-year study of the institute’s work with preschoolers in the Baltimore school district. “This is very important for low-income kids who are not highly skilled verbally.”

Here at VIP Village, Ms. Roberson is expecting that kind of ongoing commitment from her own staff.

“I never want to walk into a classroom and see a teacher just reading a story,” Ms. Roberson said. “I am way beyond that.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Institute Puts Professional Artists In Little Ones’ Classrooms


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