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Using art-based activities to engage with Special Needs

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

While art is important for all, the value of art activities for individuals with special needs cannot be overemphasized! Artistic activities directly exercise and strengthen the cognitive and physical skills that generally challenge children with special needs, such as oral, tactile, visual, sensory and motor skills. They provide such individuals with an outlet for expression and creativity that enhances learning. Medical studies have found that participation in creative arts reduces stress, which in turn enhances the ability to learn. In addition, because procedural memory is more reliable than short-term memory, the daily drills and routines of classes of expressive art forms allow a person with special needs to retain that knowledge and experience.

Along with being a catalyst for skill development, art teaches life lessons through a therapeutic method. As educators, we have observed this repeatedly with our students. In the words of our in-house art mentor Ambreen Sheikh, art used in the context of education and psychotherapy targets a multitude of domains simultaneously. The visual immersion that art provides is as relevant for adults as it is for children, and can be used as a tool for creative exploration and catharsis, while also targeting communication, and social and adaptive skills. Part of this is due to the multi-sensory nature of the arts: memory and cognition improve when academic content is combined with color-coding, movement, rhythm, sound phrases, textures and other sensory input.

Since art is a new experience for many of our children, we help them get started by talking about different themes, and demonstrating a few ways to use materials and techniques. They then choose which of these, or other ideas, they want to explore. A few of the themes we have explored during our group art sessions at The Owl House are nature and tropical leaves, galaxies and outer space, and the ocean. We talked about the different colours of leaves we see in nature, went to the garden to pick out a few of our favourite leaves, learnt about colour mixing and shading. We used google earth satellite view to zoom into our current location, watched a video on youtube that showed us a zoom out view from earth to galaxy, named all the different things we might see in the sky, from stars to rockets, planets and rainbows, before we began to work on our project. An educational experience wrapped in creative learning, our youngsters love these sessions so much that they are always coming up with ideas for our next project, never settling for the basic colours we have to offer, teasingly asking us for exotic shades of purples, browns and oranges.

We encourage our students to be as independent as possible, but the facilitators are always there to help if needed. We aid our students in planning and executing their process by building a step-by-step plan that defines how they are going to carry out their projects, to help them visualise how a collection of thoughtful steps moves them steadily toward their goal. Our owlets have dabbled in so many different techniques from using roller brushes, spray painting, block printing with stamp cut-outs, to making DIY lamps with ice-cream sticks, glitter paper and glue guns. And if any of you (as you very well should have) made it to the Global Climate Strike - Goa Chapter, you would have been privy to all the creativity that goes into successfully protesting a catastrophe.

Building Important Life Skills through Art Education

Art for children with special needs helps in many ways. But before we begin, we need to ask ourselves some important questions. “Who is my student?” “What am I trying to teach them?” “How will I evaluate their progress?” That said, art is an incredible medium to learn more about the student, their preferences and choices. It can be tailored to suit the specific needs of the child, while keeping in mind their particular strengths and skills. Art builds connection, confidence, and understanding. Rapport building becomes a joyful experience in the midst of colourful exploration. In general, this type of expressive intervention can lead to a world of physical, behavioral and emotional benefits.

  • Building fine and gross motor skills

  • Dexterity and hand eye coordination

  • Enhancing communication and expression

  • Group collaboration and cooperation

  • Promoting self-esteem and motivation to succeed

Individuals with special needs are not unskilled – it is merely that their skills manifest in different ways to those of others, and they are often not easily induced to demonstrate them. However, a little patience, understanding, and creativity when it comes to education can work wonders. The use of art as a teaching tool can have unparalleled effects in opening up an avenue of communication between student and teacher, and in engaging the interest of the pupil.

The most beautiful thing about artistic endeavours is that there is no right or wrong way to do things. It is simply created, shared and appreciated. Everyone can create art, and everyone’s approach to art is a valid expression of who they are. To that end, embracing children’s work is an essential part of art education for children with special needs. A walk around The Owl House will take you on a tour of our students’ creations over time. And when they see other people admiring their work, it gives them (and us) a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Listen up, dear parents! As educators, we encourage you to make art with your child at home. Along with this being a great way for you to engage with your child in a familiar and safe environment, it helps in generalising and reinforcing the skills that they learn with us. Have ample art supplies and plan your art project with simple, concrete steps, and follow them step by step. Remember that showing instead of telling keeps children focused and enthusiastic. Go beyond crayons and paints. Incorporate tactile materials, such as clay and dough into projects. Working with a variety of materials helps children improve hand-eye coordination and motor skills, and using the hands is therapeutic. Applaud the result, no matter how it ends up. And, again, appreciate the result by displaying your child’s creations in your homes.

Creative methods of teaching can thus provide an unparalleled way of communicating and engaging with individuals who have special needs.


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