Embracing the Arts: Transformation and Inclusion
By Kathleen Purdy
David shuffles into the room, all smiles. He sees fabric draped on the walls, a couple of young women standing around a keyboard, and many familiar faces.
“Hi!” he shouts to no one in particular and everyone in general. He moves through the room giving a few people great bear hugs.
Anna sits in a chair with her head down, not ready to look at anyone. Her buddy comes and sits beside her and they talk. Brendon walks around with a big smile on his face, looking everyone in the eye for the acknowledgement he seeks. Terry comes in pushing his walker, ”Hi Kathaleen!” He loves to sing, and is known for his great rendition of a lion’s roar.
Liam arrives in his wheelchair, accompanied by Dad. All smiles. Legs kicking in excitement. A few more people arrive.
We are ready to start.
A music therapy student plays the piano as we form a circle and start to sing the Welcome Song. We walk around in the circle, singing, clapping our hands.
Then we play a “Name game.” I sing my name and make an action. Everyone responds with “Hello Kathleen,” and repeats my action. And so we go around the circle, everyone singing their name, everyone being acknowledged.
All our participants are different, but they share at least one thing in common: they all LOVE this creative arts program for adults with special needs. They all have a chance to participate in the storytelling, drama, music, movement, and visual arts and crafts that will unfold over the evening.
We are in the midst of a 10-week program for which we have chosen the story of “The Adventures of Peronnik” to enable everyone to experience a wide variety of sensory activities. By the end of the evening (1.5 hours) participants will have taken on character roles, perhaps built a house out of fabric and chairs, made masks for the Enchanted Forest, sung songs, and played musical games, all of which relate to and enhance the understanding of the story.
This is one of many stories the Alexander Society for Inclusive Arts has developed over the past eighteen years. The Creative Arts programs were inspired by my son Brendon who had been diagnosed with a severe global developmental delay. We worried about what social and developmental opportunities would be there for him as he grew up. After researching alternative ways of teaching children who were atypical, and observing a special education teacher whose experience spanned over 30 years working within the Waldorf schools, the first Creative Arts Play Group for children with special needs was born. That was March, 2000. We began with three facilitators: a storyteller and drama animator, a music teacher, and a movement and art teacher.
The arts provide the perfect venue in which people of diverse abilities can work and play together. By teaching through the arts, we provide an opportunity for everyone to find their strengths. Fairy tales and myths have provided the catalyst for the transformations we witness.
Every art form has its specific contribution: storytelling and drama foster the development of imagination, memory, listening skills, empathy, and both expressive and receptive language. Movement allows the participants to experience the story elements kinesthetically and rhythmically. The visual arts introduce different textural experiences through watercolour painting, clay work, drawing, and different crafts that relate to the story. Music is key to the unfolding of each session, providing continuity from week to week. In recent years we have welcomed music therapy practicum students to our programs.
We rely on volunteers to provide one-on-one support for the participants. Early on, we discovered that the volunteers were getting as much out of the program as the participants:
In their own words:
I saw how much of an impact the arts could have on children with special needs.
As an education student this has greatly influenced my future professional interests… it has strengthened my commitment to a truly inclusive classroom; every student has special strengths and gifts to offer. The Alexander Society is a wonderful embodiment of this!
At the end of the 10-week program, each participant is presented with a certificate that makes them an honorary member of the Court of Peronnik. When I present this to Terry, he bursts out crying! He says, “Oh Kathaleen! Thank you!” Big hug. Then it is time to sing our last good-bye song, bidding farewell to each participant and to the the characters in the drama. The ritual has ended, and we all go back to our daily lives, a little bit richer.
Kathleen Purdy is co-founder of the Alexander Society for Inclusive Arts. She is a teacher, mother, former dancer, and coordinator and facilitator of Creative Arts programs. She is also a certified educational support teacher. Kathleen is available to do workshops. Contact her through the above website or email@example.com.