The Journey Begins
As a young child, I grew up in a household where symphonies played every Sunday, and I could often catch my father conducting in the other room. Each of us had to learn an instrument and other arts were encouraged as well. As a result, my parents spent their weekdays driving us all to various rehearsals and performances for many years. Our lives were greatly enriched by this intentional culture, evidenced by the fact that we all had the ability to join in when songs were sung, no matter what the venue or occasion.
At age 16, I was at church and someone knew I sang and played the guitar and asked me to help in a class for the disabled. I entered a room filled with adults with disabilities who, at that time, were considered better off in institutionalized settings, though I found them to be no different than anyone else. From that moment a passion was born in me and my life journey began.
I found the arts to be a means of communication, a seed of self-esteem, and an outlet for confidence. Someone who is limited in one area may be gifted in another, but you never know until you begin the process of discovery. When I began my first dance class in Grand Rapids, one of the students with Down syndrome ended class with perfect splits. I said to myself, “not everyone can do that; that is talent!” She started classes with me and 30 years later she can still bust a move and garner the attention of a room!
For individuals with Down syndrome, the arts provide an area of their lives where many can excel and be successful. It increases their attention span and lays a solid base for continued learning. A child who enters into arts education gains a profound ability and understanding of how to work with and create relationships with others. It serves an equalizer where they can share in an environment that is safe, fun, and productive.
In music, we build songs together, one student building on the other student’s musical expression. The ability of the student to follow directions increases with participation in class activities. In Call and Response, a music teacher plays a beat and the student copies it. As the lesson continues, with each musical conversation, the individual increases the number of beats, which in turn increases their attention span. The learning of sequencing enhances rhythm and pronunciation in speech. Learning an instrument helps the development of eye-hand coordination and the discovery of new ways to express ourselves. It allows us to learn patterning which is the basis for our formal educational learning.
Theatre helps us to connect to our emotions, both visually and through hearing. We discover how to show emotions through our physical actions and relate them to events. In classes and when performing we use characters to explore expression in a safe environment. Imagine for a moment, being able to be someone completely different than yourself, and what you may discover. For an individual with Down syndrome, it allows them to expand their social exchanges and understanding of how environments interact. There is a benefit to learning character voices as well, as it allows one to increase vocal skills.
In movement, we sequence steps together to make a dance. Creativity is encouraged and often leads to self-discovery, all in an environment that is productive. Dancing forces the student to think differently about how they use their body. It is a challenging brain stimulant to learn and remember the steps in choreographed dances. They learn important things about posture and positioning, which brings about a level of poise. Using creative movement to learn, we can partner it with bright colors, giggles, different movements, and overall fun. This is then an easy recipe for bringing about growth and positive development. For individuals with Down syndrome, movement classes help them to recognize their strengths and build up their weaker areas. Muscle groups are woven together through routines, and personal space can be better understood. Students show an increased ability to navigate their world. For individuals with many kinds of developmental disabilities, movement class also helps maintain flexibility and strength throughout the years.
Hurray for the ability to “let it all go,” and an art class is the place for this. Being messy is okay for a while, although that can be a tricky, difficult thing for some individuals with Down syndrome to accept. We are often so rigid in our environments of how things are to be done that having a class that allows for and encourages exploration of new ideas will invite us to explore the world around us in new ways. I have been excited to discover so many artists within the disability community through the years. Once they get past believing they cannot do something and begin discovering what they can do, there is an evident explosion of confidence.
Early intervention of the arts can lay the groundwork for many skills that will also be used in learning. Understanding rhymes provides a base to teaching, especially in the areas of reading and language skills. The world is full of rhythm and to be able to connect to and utilize it in learning hastens the speed at which we can master activities. A child who is engaged in the arts develops increased patterning skills. A young class may seem chaotic at first, as the students are encouraged to explore and create freely, but through time they discover skills along the way that can be drawn on in learning for the rest of their lives.
May The Arts Endure Forever
Recently, a family aide had attended The Best Prom Ever and I was so honored when she shared with me her observations:
I could tell the kids who were your students. They had a confidence and ease to them. Dancing was second nature. They knew what to do throughout the whole evening. They also knew how to dance with a partner.
Wow! In our dance classes I have always tried to ensure that all our student learn basics of social dance. Assuring that at any community event our students might attend, they would feel confident and comfortable. What an incredible blessing to hear that we are meeting this goal!
For children who have grown up in the arts, parents report improved emotional regulation and reduced anxiety and aggression. They are able to work through difficult times by using creative problem solving, which often calls on various elements learned in their arts exposure.
I spoke with a parent recently, complimenting her daughter’s independence as she has become employed and is now thinking about getting her own place. I asked her what her secrets were. Her response was:
Honestly, dance! All of her life, she has been able to perform and be accepted for who she was. As she grew up, her confidence did too. With her confidence she was able to move into the world to accomplish her dreams. Dance held her, believed in her, accepted her, and launched her as a person who knew she could do all she imagined.
Educators and researchers have supported the use of arts in education for years. But for individuals with Down syndrome (and many other developmental disabilities) it is even more essential, as it broadens their abilities to communicate and interact with the world at large, often fostering a much-needed confidence they may not find elsewhere. Over the past 40 years, I have found the arts to be an area in which success and confidence go hand in hand, ultimately bringing about a more positive identity. So, by all means: sing, dance, play, and be creative!
Words I associate with the arts: Freedom, Happiness, Confidence, Joy, Expression, Laughter, Passion.
Delight Lester is the Founder and Executive Director of Arts In Motion Studio in Grand Rapids. Delight has been an adaptive movement specialist and instructor for more than 30 years. She is also a licensed social worker – training and experience that makes her uniquely aware of the needs of the whole person. Arts In Motion offers a wide variety of art classes for students with disabilities. To learn more you can visits artsinmotionstudio.org or call 616-446-7452.