When Jan Ellenstein teaches Evanston youth to paint ocean scenes with acrylics or draw cityscapes with pastels, she isn’t hoping for masterpieces. She’s hoping the young learners will acquire the confidence to see themselves as artists, no matter their skill level.
Jan, the lead children and youth facilitator at Open Studio Project (OSP), works with a dedicated team at the arts and social service organization to help prepare pre-K students for kindergarten. Using a newly-developed curriculum that incorporates arts activities, like painting and clay molding, with skill-building lessons, OSP hosts and travels to different pre-K education centers in Evanston to lead art classes. These sessions help students unleash their creativity and develop the social and emotional skills needed to be successful in school and beyond.
“The activities provide emotional tools to build positive relationships and help people appreciate differences and develop empathy,” said Chantal Healey, executive director of OSP. “We’re teaching our kids that kindness, empathy and extending a hand to those in-need really helps us become a stronger society and helps the world become a better place.”
More than an art class, students learn life skills
On a sunny Friday in February, a dozen students from The Learning Bridge Early Education Center huddled around paint-splattered sheets in the center’s carriage house to paint ocean scenes alongside Jan and her team of artists.
Before slathering turquoise, indigo and yellow paint on their white canvases — and all over their hands and arms — the group of 4- and 5-year-olds had a lively discussion about sea animals and their habitats.
Sitting in a circle with the kids, Jan scribbled an obscure fish on her paper, then asked the group if it was good enough to use for her project.
“It can be an imaginary fish. Because we all see things differently,” interjected Ned, a blonde student with lime-green hair dye on the tips of his curly locks.
“Yes! You’ve been listening!” Jan exclaimed.
For 12 weeks, OSP’s team will visit Learning Bridge to host two art classes that teach the students such lessons. The classes are a creative journey that combines social and emotional skill-building with art in a process that values self-expression over technique and abandons critiquing the students’ work.
For 45-minutes each week, the students create projects that explore machines, mammals, their bodies, the solar system and more. The projects incorporate each of the five attributes of social-emotional learning — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills.
“In schools, the work is very skills-based, but here, it’s very process-based. There’s a lot of freedom within the structure. It’s not really about the product. It’s about the experience of doing the art and enjoying it,” Jan said of OSP’s pre-K readiness program.
In addition to the classes for little ones, the studio project hosts therapeutic art classes for parents at their storefront studio on Sherman Avenue to complement the students’ learning. Following the 12-week program at Learning Bridge, OSP will take their art instruction to Reba Early Learning Center and the Childcare Network of Evanston.