Art, Play and the Child in the pandemic

For children across the world, these last two years have been disruptive in every sense of the word. We have yet to fully understand the cost of the pandemic and its resultant staggered and unfinished learning on our school children. The impact of school closures, the oscillation between virtual, hybrid and offline learning, schedule changes, new teachers, glitchy internet connection and screen fatigue are only a few examples of how these unprecedented times have manifested into our children’s lives. The lack of extracurricular and outdoor activities, absence of in-person peer engagement, altered eating and sleeping habits, the grief of losing a loved one, and the anxiety of reduced family income – can foster social withdrawal, monotony, depression, lethargy or irrational fears. This abnormal lifestyle goes beyond academic setbacks and puts a generation at risk of growing without skills and behaviours to maintain their socio-emotional well-being.

Tanvi, 4C, DPS Coimbatore

Although schools and governing bodies have put their best efforts to create safe and innovative learning environments for children, teachers and the extended community, the next few years are becoming increasingly vital to bring back stability, tangible interactions, healthy lifestyle habits and comfortable transitions into a “new normal”.

Over the last two years, Art1st mentors have worked with teachers to revise art curriculums and teaching methodologies, making them relevant for online learning. Our engagement with teachers has allowed us to help them further build their confidence and take ownership of digital platforms while keeping Zoom fatigue at bay. However, with 2022 beginning with another variant, bringing a new cycle of change and anxiety – we at Art1st have wondered how art class can break the monotony of online learning. Can it become the space for play and unfiltered joy? What are the different ways Art1st can innovate to put the child first? In this article, the mentors and team come together to take stock of what Art1st has done so far to prioritise the child’s well-being – and how we can further amplify those efforts.

Art1st’s direct engagement has always been singular with teachers, and our connection to the child has been an extension of our practice with the school ecosystem. With online learning further reducing classroom observation sessions (where mentors could see and interact with the children), engaging content and sensitive outlooks became our key channels of taking charge of the child’s needs.

With the end of the year approaching, school communities were enthusiastic about returning to campus and compiling the year’s work into “curation”, which is usually faster and more personal in offline settings. After continuing with online or hybrid models, keeping spirits high and holding the child’s attention for more extended periods became essential. 

For schools newly inducted into our program, after being familiarised with the Art1st curriculum, refining time-management was vital – through organising the class into openings, reflections and detailed lesson plans. Schools working with Art1st for multiple years had more confidence to experiment with adapting lesson plans for their classrooms.

A variety of new projects like using bodies as sites of play and film-making helped tackle the restrictions of screens and surfaces. Children explored new and now readily accessible digital mediums like photography, video editing and collage making. Children created plays with finger and hand puppets. They shot and edited various scenes from their own houses into seamless films – mixing mediums while also having the opportunity to tell stories and take ownership of their projects.

Apeksha Jha, Grade 4, DPS Patna

Treasure hunts put their immediate surroundings and objects into new perspectives, bringing a sense of adventure, competition and curiosity into the classroom. Standard Art1st projects like “Lines in Nature” saw refreshing renditions, skipping leaves that would have been easy to find outside and looking at lines in the kitchen, in cloves of garlic, coconuts – with some new examples like pet turtles and cats. Some teachers even took their classes from new settings like their community parks to instigate intrigue and interest from their students. 

Access to Art1st tools like the Timeline were also helpful in taking advantage of online learning. Our “How to read an artwork” exercises which helped teachers bring all of the artworks in the Art1st curriculum books into context with geographical and historical sources, are essential to explore concepts like colour and shape in art. They necessitate understanding the background needed to analyse artwork compositions, materials, mediums, symbolism, and storytelling. Regardless of the usual polar response of being excited or overwhelmed, the Timeline became an interesting tool to learn the fundamentals of art and art history with children.

There was a considerable effort to compensate for the tactile interpersonal development of art class. Some modified group activities like “Draw Together” sessions and family interviews involved the parents as collaborators. A clever exercise that used the Zoom interface to combat distance was an iteration of portrait studies. Instead of self-portraits, students were encouraged to use the gallery view to make portraits of each other, reviving the natural essence of the classrooms. We dissuaded teachers from dictating the course of discussion – allowing children to conversationally wander in break out rooms to remind them of the different kinds of interactions they had with their peers in between classes.

The Art1st Assessment Rubric – Topics

Many of the mentors’ training sessions incorporated assessment techniques that impacted teacher sensitivity in unanticipated ways. The introduction of the Art1st Assessment Rubric was a pivotal exercise in managing expectations. Teachers learnt how to build student profiles, starting with a laundry list of adjectives that quickly brought to everyone’s attention how much they were expecting of their students – allowing teachers to take a step back and readjust their expectations as more realistic and considerate.

Creative Thinking –  A teacher’s mind map

The assessment rubric covered creative thinking, critical thinking, growth and habits, and more experienced teachers could define their parameters and connect them to socio-emotional indicators. Their learning of fundamentals of arts, which they used to read famous artworks, was applied for student artworks – to assess more than their skills, looking for the child’s personality, background, journey, expressivity and evolution over the last couple of years.

Asking teachers to reflect on their relationship to art also became important in their understanding of the role that art can play in the lives of their students. In the “What is art?” activity, mentors asked teachers to draw four random dots on a paper and then join them with a continuous line. Each dot then represented their relationship with art at different points in their life. The first was their earliest memory of their encounter with art. The second was an important milestone in their art education – some listed defining projects in college, some listed advice that their professors had given them, which they carried with them even today. The third represented their practice – as an artist or educator, and the last dot symbolised their current relationship to art in the present moment. Teachers wrote, drew and even brought objects and placed them on the paper. This exercise became a safe space for them to reflect, giving them insight into their growth. Such activities are necessary for educators who have been endlessly adapting and reacting to pandemic changes. Additionally, it helped recognise the value of a connection to art, motivating them to sustain the passion with which we help children reimagine the world through art.

For the Art1st team, art carries a unique, multifaceted power of breeding creativity, critical thinking and community through elements of joy and play. We continuously take stock of our interventions, helping us improve and adapt our methodologies to benefit the child consistently. We are looking forward to a hopefully more stable and interactive academic year, where we can continue to exemplify the power of art in a child’s holistic development.

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