Getting a head start with art

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BRATTLEBORO — For decades, research has shown that the developing brain of the young child is significantly influenced by early experiences. As of April 2017, the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University posted on its website the figure of more than one million new neural connections being formed every second in the first few years of life.

Since 2001, the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center has partnered with Early Education Services to offer arts enrichment activities presented during the school year by teaching artists in 15 different Head Start classrooms in Brattleboro and Westminster. The program is called, "Head Start with Art."

Head Start, a national program, provides comprehensive services, including early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement, to low-income children and their families.

"More and more, society is realizing how important these early years are in child development," said Sarah Freeman, BMAC's exhibitions manager and coordinator of education programs. "Supporting kids at this age helps them grow into successful personhood.

"Some kids don't have access to after-school programs," Freeman continued, "or even Rhyme Time at Brooks Memorial Library, or they can't afford to go to KidsPLAYce. Therefore, Head Start is important, offering that kind of enrichment so children are not missing out."

The teaching artists work with children, ages newborn to five, collaborating closely with the Head Start classroom teachers and the teaching assistants to design activities that fit the specific classroom goals, such as vocabulary building, communicating with others calmly and safely, and development of not only gross motor skills (those necessary for controlling the large muscles of the body in crawling, sitting, walking, and running), but also of fine motor skills (those required for small movements, such as using a spoon, picking up small objects, or holding a crayon).

Having children talk about what they see and experience in these sessions contributes to building vocabulary, Freeman said.

"So much of the activity is about language acquisition and language abundance," Freeman said. "The emphasis is on the spoken word and repetition: hearing people speak, and being encouraged to speak. These kids are sponges, so receptive."

Teaching artist Katie Bachler, in her hands-on visual art sessions, uses lots of tactile materials, such as clay or paint, that engage the different senses. Outdoor exploration could include rocks and sticks used in a large communal art piece. The children explore different materials and techniques. They learn about colors, patterns, and textures.

Teaching artist Luz Elena Morey's music and movement sessions include singing, creative vocalization, use of multi-cultural instruments, dance, creative movement, and relaxation. The children learn how their bodies move through space.

Each teaching artist visits each classroom four or five times during the school year. They willingly assist classroom teachers in duplicating their methods so that even after the sessions end, teachers can extend the experience in their classrooms, helping children learn how to express themselves in positive and creative ways.

Twice each school year, once in the fall and once in the spring, Freeman visits the Head Start classrooms served by the teaching artists to observe sessions in action.

"I see how the teachers and the teaching artists interact," she said. "I see the different challenges, what's going well and where we might need to tweak things."

It's amazing in the time between her two visits, she said, to see how much the children have grown in vocabulary and spatial awareness.

At the end of school year, the Head Start teachers fill out evaluation forms.

"These are very helpful and important," Freeman said. "Teachers reflect on how the sessions went, how their classes responded. Often teachers are surprised. They know their students' challenges, but they'll see the children `engaged the whole time,' `singing along,' or `holding hands in a circle.' These sessions give the kids a moment of calm or of joyous participation. There are so many obstacles for these children. Head Start is a safe place for them. I'm in awe of how hard these teachers work."

Early Education Services can be reached at 802-254-3742. EES services include Early Head Start (newborn to 3) and Head Start (3 to 5) classrooms, Early Head Start Home Visiting, the Welcome Baby Program, Early Education Services play groups, the Dedicated Dads Program, Parent-Child Center programs, and the monthly EES Dental Clinic for children under three.

Freeman uses the responses on the evaluation forms when writing grant reports and when applying for grants for the program. The Vermont Arts Council was the original funder of the program and remains a significant funder. The Head Start with Art program has been so successful that it has been able to attract other funders, such as the Ben & Jerry's Vermont Community Action Team and the Turrell Fund.

"Teachers are already using music and art in their classrooms," Freeman said. "With this program, we are reinforcing what they do. We are introducing children and teachers to arts professionals who are confident in their techniques and who are additional positive adult role models."

Nancy A. Olson, a frequent contributor to the Reformer, can be reached at olsonnan47@gmail.com.

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