Arts & Crafts: Building blocks for self-expression

Local camps provide variety of art forms — and various ways to grow

Campers practicing circus arts.
Photo by Barry Freniere, Shepherd Valley Waldorf School

For kids, art is more than just fingerpainting and doodling. It’s their best chance to learn about and express their own emotions, according to some child psychologists.

“Especially in the early years, children don’t have the words to express how they feel,” says local licensed counselor and art therapist Sue Wallingford. “But art involves their senses, bodies and minds. It builds their repertoire of feelings, and they can take these really chaotic feelings and make form out of it.”

Sure, not every kid needs therapy. But they can all benefit from self-expression. And opportunities for self-expression abound at local camps, which offer everything from sculpture, music and dance to storybook-making, and, yes, fingerpainting. Self-expression can also teach a child to self-soothe, boost confidence and open conversations between kids and parents.

The process of creating art also calms the nervous system, Wallingford says. That’s something art instructors notice, too: how the total absorption of creativity can make problems seem to disappear.

“Sometimes, a student will be having a rough day, or going through something bigger, but they see the concepts we’re working on, and really throw themselves into it,” says Ashley Machacek, an education assistant who teaches visual arts at the Arvada Center Summer Camps. “That doesn’t happen to every student, but it’s really wonderful to see them light up.”

Kids can also get a boost when their artwork is praised by their parents, says Lloyd Burch, co-owner of POSH paint and wine studio.

“The reactions of the parents to the kids’ paintings, that’s the real benefit,” Burch says. “The parents are praising the kids, the kids are feeling good. And if you feel good about yourself, you’re going to heal yourself. That’s one of the biggest things we saw. The art creates better relationships.”

At POSH’s last summer camp, where students painted their interpretation of themes like “Star Wars” and “Colorado Animals” on canvas, he observed their artistic progress, too.

“Especially the boys, because the first time, they slap paint on canvas and they’re done in 15 minutes,” Burch says. “The girls spend effort initially. Then the boys look around and see the other kids doing a better job. The next time they come in, they’ll spend 45 minutes. The third time, they’re so proud. You really see development.”

And that development is important. In brain development studies, says Wallingford, “art is a building block for later learning.”

Some art camps intentionally integrate other kinds of learning into art projects. At Arvada Center Summer Camps, Machacek teaches art history to her students.

“It’s not necessarily how you imagine art history,” she says. “It’s history hidden in the art projects we do.”

This summer, Arvada Center will launch new interdisciplinary camp classes.

“The interdisciplinary classes will teach how we can use writing, drawing and painting to create narratives,” says Machacek, who will teach the new class. “And our performing arts instructors are teaching based on books. And this summer, we’ll offer what we call ‘Awesome Art Packs,’ which pair together different kinds of art, so kids can learn performing arts and visual arts in the same day.”

Other art camps offer multiple artistic forms in the same day or same week, too. At local art camps, the opportunities for self-expression range from painting, music, and dance to woodworking, mask-making, and circus arts.

“The circus camp was great because the person they hired to lead the camp did a whole host of different activities, from doing backflips and juggling to balancing tricks,” says Jane Anderson, whose daughter will be enrolled in Shepherd Valley Waldorf School’s Circus Camp again this summer. Last summer, Anderson’s daughter practiced a balance beam and “clowning around” act.

“She felt empowered by that, because she made everybody laugh,” Anderson says. “The clown makeup, dressing up, trying new things, that’s therapeutic in itself. Kids have this freedom to create a show for the parents.”

Even kids who aren’t thrilled by art class may discover they’re artists at heart, learning their favorite way to improve their brain development, emotional intelligence and even family relationships.

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