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4 Fun Art Projects that Build Educational Muscle

The other day I heard a segment on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show about arts funding to New York City public schools, which is much lower than I, and the guests (which included president of Columbia University’s Teacher College), think it should be. With such an intense focus being placed on test prep, support for the arts seems extraneous, like fun icing on the math, reading, and science cake. It’s difficult to quantify the benefits of arts education, though one of the guests said that studies are being done, and have been done, that show such benefits are substantial.

I’m such a staunch fan of the arts that the idea of a doing a study to quantify their educational importance gives me the heebie-jeebies. Aren’t the benefits obvious? Creating a picture, a book, a song, or a drama performance requires active, critical thinking, and confident yet careful decision making, and, in some cases, working collaboratively with your peers. It’s a purely pleasurable activity that gets your whole brain fired up!

That’s assuming you’re doing art right, though, and not just handing out pages for kids to color within the lines. When I was in grade school, arts education meant making cards for our parents around holidays. So really, aside from writing a message on the inside of the card, very little instruction occurred. My teachers did not take the opportunity to teach us about perspective, color theory, and scale, which touch on science and logical reasoning skills. Art just wasn’t highly valued at the grade school I attended.

At home was a different matter. On the weekend, my mom helped me make books, my dad worked with me to build models and construct cars for the Cub Scout’s Pinewood Derby, and a few times a year the family visited Art Museums with my painter uncle, who talked with us about the things that we saw. Also, I can’t underestimate the impact Bob Ross’s painting show on PBS made on me. Seriously! He seemed like such a calm, relaxed dude, planting “happy little trees” with a few deft scrapes of his palette knife. Ross made painting seem both a painstaking craft and a deepening spiritual pursuit, just as my parents used our craft projects as opportunities to hone my intellect as well as provide opportunities for self-expression.

My son Felix is four years old, and he’s always been very focused on the concrete world. Gardening and cooking, also creative pursuits, have long held appeal, but he’s only recently shown an interest in drawing, building, and other artistic activities. People have asked if I spend any time during the day teaching him letters or math. I haven’t, not expressly. But these skills come up often when we create art together.

Here are four projects we’ve done that are fun and also, I think, build important pre-school skills.

  • Flower Magnet 1 of 5
    first slide

    Flowers from the garden, pressed between contact paper, and then glued to a magnet. Perfect for the fridge! A variation on the flower necklace, which you'll find if you click ahead...

  • Making a Book 2 of 5
    book

    First, Felix told me a story about getting lost on the subway, demonstrating his ability to stitch events together with the thread of cause and effect. I wrote his words down, and we read it over together until we decided it the story was just right. (In other words, we revised.)

     

    I then decided how many pages our book would be and wrote a sentence or two on each page. Felix created a picture to go along with each sentence, and also a cover for the book. This required that he figure out the most important part of the sentence — the character (the subject), the action (the verb) — and then decide how to depict it pictorially. My wife, a bit better with a needle and thread than I, then stitched it all together.

     

    Viola! He's authored his first book!

  • Creating Animal Costumes 3 of 5
    costume

    I'm not sure how this started, but Felix and his wonderful babysitter Bridget (one of his favorite friends), went through a period where each day they created a new animal costume. This involved talking and learning a bit about the animal, and if possible, observing it either in the backyard or online.

     

    The easiest thing to make are paper wings, which he can wear on his back via string loops. Bridget cuts the wings out and then they decorate them appropriately — red with black spots for a ladybug, or stuck with colorful bits of paper for a parrot. They've also made glasses and a bunny nose out of pipe-cleaners, and a shark fin headband, and spider gloves that have threads of web hanging from the fingers. The possibilities are endless!

  • Writing Songs 4 of 5
    song

    How to pass the time when Felix is really excited about a guest coming to visit? Write a song!

     

    He comes up with the words, and he's developed a knack for making rhymes, which sharpens his verbal dexterity. (He's a fan of Dr. Suess and his made-up word rhymes, and we also listen to a lot of hip-hop.) There's also the structure of the song to consider, the chorus and verse, and whether there will be a funky breakdown at the end — all of which requires thinking about the audience as well as logical decision making. Then we need to come up with the music. Felix has access to a piano and guitar, but he really prefers just knocking out a phat beat. (Do people say "phat beat" anymore, or am I dating myself?) And what is a beat but a repetitive pattern?

     

    Finally, there's the performance, which requires Felix stay still, speak loud, and (hopefully) make eye contact with his audience — all important socializing skills. Don't forget to dance!

  • Jewelry Making 5 of 5
    jewelry

    In our house, jewelry making is directly tied to the garden. Because aren't fresh bloomed flowers nature's precious gems? That's what my inner-Martha Stewart tells me, anyway.

     

    Seriously though, we love flowers, and my wife is good with flower names. After a big of observation, Felix selects his favorite, which we seal in contact paper. Using a ruler to help (math!), draw a circle around the flower. He can then practice physical dexterity by using his safety-scissors to cut out the circle. Punch a hole in the contact paper, and and let your child string yarn through the hole to make an awesome necklace.

     

    We also have made flower headbands, again practicing close looking to try and mimic the flower in the garden. Any kind of activity that involves close observation and then recreation in a drawing or using art supplies touches on the basic building blocks of all learning — paying attention, analyzing what you're seeing, comparing it to something else— so don't cut art out of your child's life. Creativity is a fundamental part of education, not something separate to it.

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