Pre-K Students Craft Healthy Behaviors Through Arts Education

When Jan Ellenstein teaches Evanston youth to paint ocean scenes with acrylics or draw cityscapes with pastels, she isn’t hoping for masterpieces. She’s hoping the young learners will acquire the confidence to see themselves as artists, no matter their skill level.

Jan, the lead children and youth facilitator at Open Studio Project (OSP), works with a dedicated team at the arts and social service organization to help prepare pre-K students for kindergarten. Using a newly-developed curriculum that incorporates arts activities, like painting and clay molding, with skill-building lessons, OSP hosts and travels to different pre-K education centers in Evanston to lead art classes. These sessions help students unleash their creativity and develop the social and emotional skills needed to be successful in school and beyond.

“The activities provide emotional tools to build positive relationships and help people appreciate differences and develop empathy,” said Chantal Healey, executive director of OSP. “We’re teaching our kids that kindness, empathy and extending a hand to those in-need really helps us become a stronger society and helps the world become a better place.”

More than an art class, students learn life skills

On a sunny Friday in February, a dozen students from The Learning Bridge Early Education Center huddled around paint-splattered sheets in the center’s carriage house to paint ocean scenes alongside Jan and her team of artists.

Before slathering turquoise, indigo and yellow paint on their white canvases — and all over their hands and arms — the group of 4- and 5-year-olds had a lively discussion about sea animals and their habitats.

Sitting in a circle with the kids, Jan scribbled an obscure fish on her paper, then asked the group if it was good enough to use for her project.

“It can be an imaginary fish. Because we all see things differently,” interjected Ned, a blonde student with lime-green hair dye on the tips of his curly locks.

“Yes! You’ve been listening!” Jan exclaimed.

For 12 weeks, OSP’s team will visit Learning Bridge to host two art classes that teach the students such lessons. The classes are a creative journey that combines social and emotional skill-building with art in a process that values self-expression over technique and abandons critiquing the students’ work.

For 45-minutes each week, the students create projects that explore machines, mammals, their bodies, the solar system and more. The projects incorporate each of the five attributes of social-emotional learning — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills.

“In schools, the work is very skills-based, but here, it’s very process-based. There’s a lot of freedom within the structure. It’s not really about the product. It’s about the experience of doing the art and enjoying it,” Jan said of OSP’s pre-K readiness program.  

In addition to the classes for little ones, the studio project hosts therapeutic art classes for parents at their storefront studio on Sherman Avenue to complement the students’ learning. Following the 12-week program at Learning Bridge, OSP will take their art instruction to Reba Early Learning Center and the Childcare Network of Evanston.

Addressing disparities in Evanston households

Aiming to expose Evanston youth, especially those from low-income households, to new experiences and enhance their social skills, Open Studio Project partnered with Evanston Cradle to Career (EC2C), a local network of social service providers and community stakeholders, to develop the pre-K readiness program.

The program is structured to advance the network’s mission to ensure all Evanston children receive the necessary preparation to succeed in kindergarten and into their adult lives. Of the 70 children served through the program, nearly 90 percent are from low-income or economically-stressed households.

In 2017, the Illinois Report Card showed there was a 27 percent achievement gap between students from non-low-income and low-income households at Evanston Township High School. OSP leaders aim to intervene in the lives of local youth earlier, reducing this disparity in the future and creating cycles of positive emotional patterns in families.

Art programs see early successes

Prior to hosting the pre-K readiness classes, OSP piloted the social and emotional arts program in a few special needs classes at Lincoln School and King Arts Elementary School in Evanston. Students and teachers shared cheerful stories of their experience and many participants displayed more positive behaviors.

Based on early survey feedback, teachers reported that their students showed improved relationship skills, responsible decision-making, increased self-awareness, better self-management and more social awareness. Many students were also able to focus on their art projects for up to 30 minutes, a task that is often difficult for special needs students.

“Having Open Studio Project in my classroom has been a wonderful opportunity for my students to explore art through an open-ended forum,” said Leah Johnston, a teacher from Lincoln School. “Much of our school day is highly structured, and so the opportunity to have open choice and expression through something as concrete and tangible as making art is unlike many other experiences.”

In mid-February, following their program, about two dozen students from Kings Art Elementary School came to OSP’s two-room studio for an exhibition of their art. During their visit, they molded foil, tape and streamers into creations and admired their artwork hanging in the studio’s gallery.

As the group concluded their visit, one of the teachers called to the students, “If you like seeing your artwork in the gallery, clap your hands!”

Among the applause, one of the students, Lissette, 11, who sported a sequined backpack and fuzzy winter hat, excitedly slapped her hands on the armrests of her wheelchair.

Just before leaving, she turned to her teacher with a contagious smile. “I’ll show my mom, mi Madre,” she said. “I can’t believe our artwork is here!”