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A Crafty Way of Communicating: How I Bonded with Spanish-speaking Kids in Peru and The Health Benefits of Art

crafting in peru

A first grader holds up one of his popsicle-stick creations.

The hardest part about spending a week in Peru with Latism was not my time freezing at night or fearing a fall to my death down a muddy mountain in Patacancha — it was my inability to communicate. As I mentioned before, people in Patacancha speak Quechua and/or Spanish, neither of which I understand on any level outside of “hola,” or “adios.” It’s the most alienating feeling when you’re unable to understand what’s going on around you or share your thoughts and ask questions. My saving grace was crafts. The one thing I am not good at (I used to bribe my friends in Girl Scouts to sew for me) nor particularly into (I’m a fish out of water in any craft store) was the one thing I could share with the kids of Patacancha. As the saying goes, “you’ll never find an atheist in a fox hole.”

The most notable thing I noticed about the kids in Patacancha is their innate creativity and their lack of resources. Each night at dinner the kids in my host family would sketch in little notebooks with a simple pen or pencil for at least an hour straight. Kids here don’t go home to Crayola crayons or paints, they don’t have easels or Play-Doh. So when Babble showed up with a bag full of craft supplies from Michael’s, they went nuts. Literally. At one point I gave a couple of little ones some pipe cleaners and showed them how to make bracelets. Within 5 minutes the entire elementary school was running towards me with their hands in the air as if I were giving away candy. I quickly learned how to say “get in one line!,” or “una fila!”

Studies have shown that art therapy helps kids and adults heal, bond, and overcome anxieties. In a Science magazine essay titled “Artistic Creativity and the Brain,” Semir Zeki writes: “It is commonality that allows us to communicate about art and through art, with or without the use of the written or the spoken word.” In other words, creativity is a great equalizer. Here I’m going to share with you some photos of the kids taking pride in their crafts and highlight some health benefits of art. Whether the barrier is toddler speak or Quechua we all need a common language. — Dara Pettinelli

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  • Academic Performance 1 of 10
    Academic Performance
    The College Board reported that in 2004, those who had taken fine arts courses did better on the SATs than those who did not. Students involved in the arts also do better in school.
  • Life Skills 2 of 10
    Life Skills
    Art teaches skills that tests cannot measure such as: visual-spatial abilities, reflection, self-criticism, and the willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes.
  • Motivation and Inspiration 3 of 10
    Motivation and Inspiration
    Studies show that arts education is particularly beneficial for young children and those who are economically disadvantaged or struggling academically. Strong arts programs are also linked to improving certain communication and critical-thinking skills, as well as student motivation for learning and school climate.
  • Social Skills 4 of 10
    Social Skills
    In research commissioned by the Wallace Foundation on the affect of arts education, they found that arts helped kids with attitude and behavior. Arts help to teach kids self-discipline, critical thinking skills, teamwork, and tolerance.
  • Health Benefits 5 of 10
    Health Benefits
    The Wallace Foundation research also found that art has positive affects on a person's health, including improved mental and physical health, particularly among the elderly and those who exhibit signs of dementia from Alzheimer's disease; improved health for patients with specific health problems (e.g., premature babies, the mentally and physically handicapped, patients with Parkinson's disease, those suffering from acute pain and depression); reduced stress and improved performance for caregivers; and reduced anxiety for patients facing surgery, childbirth, or dental procedures.
  • Business Skills 6 of 10
    Business Skills
    Research has found that arts education provides skills critical to 21 st-century success. The best paying jobs require workers with creativity and higher order thinking and communication skills, and companies are increasingly looking for these qualities in the workers they recruit.
  • An Alternative to TV 7 of 10
    An Alternative to TV
    In a national study using a federal database of over 25,000 middle and high school students, researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles found students with high arts involvement watched fewer hours of TV, participated in more community service and reported less boredom in school than students with low arts involvement.
  • Therapy for Trauma 8 of 10
    Therapy for Trauma
    In an article published by the National Institute of Health (NIH), a certified therapist is quoted as saying that art helps those who've suffered trauma express themselves and take active involvement in their own healing. "When traumatic memories are stored in the brain, they're not stored as words but as images," she said. Once you draw or paint these images, she explains, you can then progress to forming words to describe them. This externalizes the trauma—moves it out of isolation, onto the page and into a positive exchange with the therapist.
  • Therapy for Special Needs 9 of 10
    Therapy for Special Needs
    In an article on Autism Key, a site run by parents of children with autism, Susan Moffitt reports that children with autism who engage in one-on-one art sessions show an improved ability to imagine and think symbolically, enhanced ability to recognize and respond to facial expressions, new ability to manage sensory issues such as a range of texture and greater fine motor skills.
  • Society Benefits 10 of 10
    Society Benefits
    Not only is participating in arts beneficial to the individual, but as the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies found, arts also benefit communities economically and culturally by attracting tourist revenue, revitalizing rural areas, inner cities and populations struggling with poverty. It also supports democracy, engaging citizens in civic discourse, and preserving a community's character for future generations.
    photo credit: Edgar Mejia

Help us bring art, health, and technology to the people of Patacancha! Join #Latism, #JnJ, and #BabbleCares TONIGHT at 9PM EST for a Twitter party where you can learn more about our work there and meet some special guests … And if you’d like to make a donation to help Patacancha, check out what Latism is doing here!

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