Follow Your Child’s Heart in Art

Explore Kidsart2

Picture a toddler surrounded by wooden blocks, arranging them carefully — even artfully. There’s a name for kids who express an aptitude for 3-D visual arts as toddlers: builders.

“Even from a very young age, you can tell the ones who are developing 3-D space more quickly than others,” says Explore! Art Director Chris Purcell. “You can already see a plan.”

But if your child isn’t composing symphonies at the age of 5 or dancing on America’s Got Talent by age 7, how do you choose an art — or performing art — class that helps her develop her skills and enhance her natural interests? We asked experts from across the Triangle for tips on what to look for — in your child and in an arts education facility.

Exploring a range of options

Triangle community arts centers offer a variety of rolling classes throughout the year. From short, introductory art classes to comprehensive after-school programs and full-day summer camps, the centers work to meet families’ needs and children’s interests.

“We want to help children see the things they’re interested in and develop tools to apply to life,” says Shirlette Ammons, youth arts coordinator for The ArtsCenter in Carrboro. “When you’re choosing a class for your child, you may sign him up for the theater hoping to improve his self-esteem, or nurture him if he is a bit reserved.”

Ammons says one of The ArtsCenter’s most popular classes is Capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts program combined with hip hop. “The kids love it, and we have a whole slate of new classes starting in the new year,” she says.

New art classes are wonderful, but Robbie Stone, supervisor of the Cary Arts Center, says signing a child up for a class without consulting him is a big mistake. “We encourage parents to talk to their kids. Maybe look through our brochure and offer a couple of suggestions to pique the child’s interest,” he says. Narrowing the choices may keep your child from feeling overwhelmed.

But what if you have determined the best spot for your child is in an improvisation class or a pointe class to become the next Sugarplum Fairy? Here’s what to look for in different arts classes.

Music: good for brain development — and family recreation

“I’ve been in the music business for over 20 years, and the last five years have [experienced] the most dramatic change,” says Billy Cuthrell, founder and owner of Progressive Music Center in Raleigh and Wake Forest. He says after a big music movement on Sesame Street and interactive video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero came on the scene, families approached music as a recreational activity.

Although the video game phenomenon has died down a bit, Cuthrell says the excitement and self-confidence generated by the games remain, and parents continue to sign children up for music lessons at a record pace. He also notes that the age of first-time students is younger than it used to be, with many enrolling at age 4, 5 and 6 years old. His school offers group piano lessons for 3- and 4-year-olds.

“Music does things for the developing brain that cannot be replaced,” Cuthrell says. However, he advises taking personality traits and the individual child into consideration.

“A good teacher can develop the talent, but parents must remember that music lessons don’t produce instant gratification,” he says. Time, persistence and practice are key.

When it comes to music, parents should consider the cost of lessons, books and the instrument. They should also describe the long-term payoffs and encourage commitment to a regular practice schedule.

Dance as recreation — or vocation?

Dance suits a naturally graceful or high-energy child. At Cary Ballet Conservatory, children’s ballet mistress Anna Penny says it can be hard to tell which students will love performing. From the first class, with children as young as 4, Penny watches to see whether children can follow her motions, pay attention and feel the music. As students approach age 10 or 11, she looks to see if they can follow more advanced movements.

“If your child is serious about it, he or she will need lots of rehearsal,” Penny says. “But if they just want it to be recreational and embrace their love of dance and performance, they can take fewer classes.”

She advises parents who have taken dance in the past against becoming over-involved in their own child’s progress or concerned about teacher corrections. “Teachers want to help students learn and grow,” she says. “Parents should let them learn and let the student enjoy feeling the dance.”

Parents looking for a dance school should research the school’s focus: Do students dance competitively or focus on jazz, ballet or tap? What are the school’s goals? Penny says once a student is in a class, parents should communicate questions or concerns to the teacher.

Visual art encourages imagination and ongoing experimentation

From clay to color theory, tile projects to monotype printing, the program at Explore focuses on teaching concepts first and prioritizing imagination overtechnical ability.

Purcell says early classes focus on spatial reasoning and teaching students how to transfer concepts between 3-D and 2-D.

One of the newest ways for Explore! students to express their creative side is through graphic design. Students as young as age 8 or 9 can experiment with software like Gamemaker 8 Pro, Flash and Bender.

“Programming is a little different in that it doesn’t really require traditional repetitive practice, but more understanding concepts and noticing things,” says Explore! Technology Director Drago Bratic. “I realize now that I had such a great learning experience when I was a kid because my teacher forced me to think in a completely different way. It’s what I’m trying to do with my students. Give them a new perspective on how to think about things.”

Whether your child is a budding Picasso or could benefit from fine motor skill improvement, ensuring that art classes open new worlds instead of hamper creativity is key. Debbie Dale, art teacher at Briarcliff Elementary School in Cary, advises choosing a facility that celebrates imagination.

“I would shy away from schools that showcase art that has that cookie-cutter look,” she says. “If it looks too alike or perfect, I would be wary. You want your children to learn skills, but they need to express themselves.”

Classes in clay, painting, drawing, tile work, stained glass, cartooning and almost any other discipline you can imagine are available in the Triangle. Art schools have different fees and class requirements, so be sure to inquire about whether materials are included in the price or need to be purchased.

Drama fosters self-confidence and communication

When Beth Brody’s son was 8, he was shy and didn’t want to play sports. She signed him up for an introductory acting class at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre and watched his confidence grow. Now a senior in high school, Brody’s son has per-formed in 50 shows and attended the North Carolina Governor’s School for acting.

“Acting isn’t just for outgoing kids,” says Brody, now NRACT operations manager. “Often kids are quiet and reserved, but it’s their gift. Kids can come and give it a try; it’s very non-threatening.”

Brody says an introductory class teaches basic acting techniques through games and exercises, and that theater skills can apply to children’s lives off-stage. “It works so much on their listening skills and teamwork,” she says. “They must pay attention and stay engaged.”

No matter how you excelled (or failed) as a child, remember to center your art class search around your child’s specific talents, goals and desires. Whatever you and your child choose, make sure you know ahead of time what will happen if you change your minds about the class or decide to try a new artistic venture. Research websites, communicate with teachers, and visit programs and schools to see if the classes being offered are a good fit for your child. 

Anne Woodman is a Morrisville-based freelance writer and mother of two.

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