Start with the arts to encourage confident and enthusiastic learners – child development

Barbara R. Trader

To the casual observer, a group of children slithering around on their stomachs, stretching and coiling like snakes, might appear to be a simple child’s game. But a Start with the Arts instructor knows that, in addition to having a lot of fun, these kids are building language skills and concept development, improving their locomotor skills, learning how to follow directions, and increasing their vocabularies.

Based on research that shows most children flourish when information is conveyed in an applied rather than theoretical setting, Start with the Arts employs hands-on arts activities to engage young children, ages 3 to 7 years, in the process of learning. Children exposed to the arts learn to learn — a lifetime skill that is transferable to other topics and areas of life. Start with the Arts also promotes the inclusion of children with disabilities into general education settings, both to their benefit and to that of their non-disabled classmates.

Since 1994, Start with the Arts has demonstrated the integral role of the arts in the early development of young children with and without disabilities. The program was developed by Very Special Arts (VSA), an international, nonprofit organization founded by Jean Kennedy Smith. VSA creates learning opportunities for children and adults with disabilities in the performing, visual, and literary arts through an international network of 141 affiliates. Many of the national affiliates engage in Start with the Arts programming in a variety of ways, including implementing the program in early childhood classrooms and conducting regional training workshops.

The structure of Start with the Arts makes it a natural for inclusion into local park and recreation offerings–through adding it to existing pre-school and elementary programs or by providing a new, arts-based program. The current nationwide focus on literacy enhancement also creates a sound reason for park and recreation professionals to partner with libraries or other community-based resources to offer this inclusive reading-preparation program.

Thematic Approach

Start with the Arts uses a thematic approach to integrate learning for children, incorporating topics that are naturally of high interest to young children. The program’s five themes contain developmentally sound experiences–utilizing visual arts, creative drama and movement, and music–that incorporate specific objectives frequently used in early childhood programs.

An important feature of Start with the Arts is the ease in which it can be integrated into existing early childhood programming. The suggested activities within each theme allow for instructor ingenuity and creativity, and they are suited for adaptation within an established program, such as an after-school program or day camp. As one Start with the Arts instructor said, “I want to tell other teachers, `This isn’t that different from what you’re already doing. It’s just about increasing awareness about what methods will create the kinds of results you want.”‘

The program’s five thematic units are: “All About Me,” which focuses on developing a healthy self-image and an appreciation for others’ unique characteristics; “How I Go From Here to There,” with an emphasis on learning about how people move from one place to another; “Feeling Hot, Cold and Wet,” an exploration of weather; “My Outside World,” which capitalizes on children’s natural curiosity about plants and animals; and “Good Food for Good Health,” designed to help children make sound nutritional choices.

Parental Involvement

Start with the Arts fully recognizes that parents are children’s primary teachers. Reaching out and actively involving parents is an integral part of the Start with the Arts curriculum. The parent-involvement component, “Learn Along at Home,” is designed to encourage parents to participate, support, and extend their children’s learning.

With each new activity, parents are provided with a brief description of the recent program experience, along with suggestions to reinforce the concepts being introduced. For example, in the “Slithering Snakes” activity, one of the suggested extensions is for parents to make paper snake puppets for their child and then allow the child to decorate and manipulate the puppet. A literary-enhancement section is also included in the parent-involvement component to support the importance of parents reading aloud and discussing books with their children. For the snakes activity, suggested books are Jimmy’s Boa and The Big Splash Birthday Party by Trinka Hakes Noble, Baby Rattlesnake by Te Ata, and Snakes by Ray Broekel.

Training Institutes

“The Institute gives teachers practical things that they can take back to the classroom and use. I can’t wait to use Start with the Arts materials in my class.” This is a typical response of teachers and instructors who participate in a Start with the Arts Training Institute. Very Special Arts makes funding available to its national affiliates to conduct regional training sessions for early childhood teachers and artists, park and recreation professionals, and parents in local communities. Several Start with the Arts programs are implemented through partnering of VSA affiliates with local park and recreation departments.

In addition to an overall program orientation, Institute trainers engage the participants in suggested adaptations for children with disabilities. Participants learn how the different art forms are uniquely important because they teach to different learning styles, while all reinforce learning in a fun, non-threatening environment.

Instructor Resource

For recreation professionals who decide to incorporate Start with the Arts into their programs, an instructor’s guide is available that is designed as a comprehensive resource. Each of the 64 activities included in the guide is organized into eight sections or components: art skill; theme focus; preparation and materials; objectives and procedures; activating children’s prior knowledge; wrap-up activity; assessment strategies; and extensions. The guide also includes suggested management strategies in the areas of scheduling, instructional grouping, and managing behaviors to achieve the maximum benefit from the program.

An appendix to the instructor’s guide provides recommended adaptations for teaching children with disabilities. For each disability area, suggestions are provided for adapting instruction to better meet the needs of the child. Overall, instructors report that individualizing instruction for children with disabilities has the effect of enriching the program for all children.

On the Techno Front

A Start with the Arts CD-ROM prototype is currently under development. This product will enhance the Start with the Arts experience for children who may be better served through technology, and it will engage children in the use of computers in a fun, educationally sound format.

One Example

Start with the Arts programs in New Hampshire focus on serving children and parents from low-income families. In partnership with local libraries and the social services network, children and parents are guided through Start with the Arts activities, followed by a few selections from the suggested reading list. Every three months, parents attend a spaghetti supper, getting tips for further use of Start with the Arts materials to enhance the growth, development, and literacy of their children. An annual festival is held to showcase participants’ creativity and to celebrate program successes.

Confident and Enthusiastic Learners

Start with the Arts is the result of a collaborative effort of many knowledgeable and creative early-childhood educators and specialists in the arts who were determined to enrich the lives of all children and to encourage them to become creative, confident, and enthusiastic learners. But the children pretending to be snakes relaxing in the sun aren’t aware of that. As one teacher said, “They’re having so much fun, they really want to learn.”

For more information about Start with the Arts, or to contact your local Very Special Arts affiliate, call (800) 9338721 or (202) 628-2800; fax: (202) 737-0725; TDD: (202) 737-0645 (TDD); E-mail: or Web site.

COPYRIGHT 1998 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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