Celebrate Young Children Learning & Growing at Living Arts!

It’s April and for many educators and communities across the country, this is the month to celebrate young children. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) denotes the official week of the young child as April 24th -28th, 2017. In Michigan two major early childhood conferences will take place, the MiAEYC Annual Conference in Grand Rapids and the International High Scope Conference in Detroit. While we will be involved with all of these events, we are also partnering with the Hope Starts Here First Annual Detroit Day of the Young Child on April 27th. This event will celebrate the publication of our book, Living Arts’ Detroit Wolf Trap: Empowering Early Learners, their Teachers and Families through the Performing Arts, which tells the story of how we, a sub-grantee of the United Way of Southeast Michigan-Social Innovation Fund Grant, became a national affiliate program of the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning through the Arts.

This month alone, Detroit Wolf Trap teaching artists are busy delivering over 30 residencies in early childhood classrooms, leading workshops for educators and conducting Family Involvement classes at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center.  So what does it look like to meet the needs of young children, families, and the educators we serve? As founding director of Detroit Wolf Trap and as a teaching artist for many years, this work with our youngest citizens continues to call to me. In this most crucial time for brain development, birth to 5, we have many opportunities to support and sustain healthy growth and development. To achieve this,  we bring the arts to this population in dynamic ways.  I get so excited when I observe classes and see the number of teaching artists who choose to lean into this challenging and joyful work.

Our visual arts teaching artists know and learn quickly that with young ones it is more about the “making” than the final product.  If you peeked into one of our early learning visual arts classes you will see those instructors promoting a range of sensory activities. Children are encouraged to explore using nontraditional art supplies. Little ones are standing, sitting or even painting on the floor.  Tearing, ripping, cutting, gluing, taping are not only ways to build a masterpiece but also develop fine motor skills. Children are exploring, inventing and engaged in a multitude of art experiences that support self-expression and the creative process.  Our dance instructors invite young movers to use their bodies and imagination to visualize and create their own movements. Working with their peers, dancers develop social and communication skills.  They experience and celebrate the accomplishment of dance making under the guidance of professional dance artists. This dance work with young children promotes questioning and answers back with physical self expression and body confidence.

Living Arts’ Detroit Wolf Trap and Baby Arts Play! ™ teaching artists bring the performing arts to children beginning at 3 months of age through Kindergarten.  They integrate their art form to enhance growth and learning opportunities for children and their teachers.  I asked Alesha Mickens, one of Living Arts’ Wolf Trap teaching artists, to have a conversation with me about her experiences within these programs.  

Alesha you performed professionally for several years before the Wolf Trap teaching artist training and then the Baby Arts Play! ™ training.  Now you are leading Family Involvement Classes as well.  Talk about your discoveries of best development practice and making music with young children.  What do we as adults need to unlearn or remember?

 It is so crucial with early learners to be in the space and experience with them. Clapping, patting on a drum, vocalizing a simple tune with inconceivable syllables - all of this can be super exciting for me at twenty-nine years old if I'm seeing an infant or toddler achieve it for the first time. Their "aha" moments are priceless, and they make it all fresh for me. It's also liberating to get back to the basics. I can sit with infants and toddlers and spend 15-20 minutes with one object, because they are exploring it in brand new ways. My little ones love the big drum I use.  They can sit around it and if we're using balls, for example, they will sit there and drop the ball on the drum, then on the floor, then on the mat, tap it, throw it, taste it (hehe). Hearing the different sounds it makes when it hits different surfaces and seeing what it can do is exhilarating for them. If I sit there in my adult mindset of "Oh my goodness, we've spent 15 minutes with this same object, this is so boring," and I have the expectation of a typical adult fast-paced environment with immediate results then I miss out.  I miss out on the novelty and the simplistic joy that comes from thoroughly experiencing and exploring something.

What are the unique features/differences of each of the three Wolf Trap program models you work with as a teaching artist? How do you work differently with the adults in these models?

Alesha using music in her family involvement class.

Alesha using music in her family involvement class.

In Baby Arts Play! ™ and Detroit Wolf Trap standard residencies, there is a very strong focus on the partnership with teachers and caregivers.  In an infant and toddler room I work to bring new musical ideas that promote vocalization, reciprocal language and gross motor development.  It’s so much sensory stimulation.   In Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten residencies we are working to integrate the classroom teacher’s goals such as social emotional development, identifying numbers, letters, colors and patterns.  There is a model and clear expectations for the entirety of the residency.  I have to quickly establish a relationship with the adults and the children I see twice a week for 8-9 weeks. I am the guest entering their space with an already established culture and system.

In our Family Involvement Classes, it's almost the opposite for me. It's like the families are coming to my "classroom" where I can create the culture.  I like that it can even evolve and quickly be adapted based on the needs of the group. It's much more organic and free-flowing.  The parents and I can build a relationship over a longer period of time as families tend to re-enroll in the classes.  I'm able to pour into them not just artistically or creatively but also emotionally and spiritually at times. I develop deeper relationships with children and parents. Because the parents are there, children feel much more secure and open.   I get to see a very intimate relationship between parent and child. It is an extraordinary honor, and I learn so much from those bonds as I get inspired to bring art into that relationship.

What is a story/moment you have experienced with children or a child that exemplifies what we mean when we say "early learning through the arts!"

 There have been so many but experiences with a little boy, Dimas, have really encouraged me.  One time, we were using these apple stress balls and I decided to put them all on the big drum.  Then I asked him to play the drum. When he saw what happened, he was invigorated and so enthralled by the realization that he made those apples jump! And the harder he hit the higher they jumped! He even began to grab my hand and the hand of his mother to get us to play with him to get them to jump even higher. This is now one of Dimas' favorite things to do and anytime we take out a prop, the first thing he does is put it on the drum to see if it will jump like those apples do. The second time I saw him demonstrate this kind of thinking was with my color scarves. I decided I would try to use them in a session to explore breathing, blowing and the use of air. His mother and I modeled inhaling and exhaling in different ways and then we took the scarves out.  I blew into one at first just holding it in my hands and letting him see the scarf move. Then I proceeded to blow into it and let go of it so he could see it fly. He kept bringing different color scarves to me and his mother to do this during that lesson and he did not attempt to do it himself. However almost a month later when I brought out the scarves for a different purpose, Dimas picked it up and blew into it, looking over at me with a big smile. Dimas is only 21 months old and we are seeing him function as a scientist! He’s making observations and developing experiments based on what he is remembering and learning!

What do you remember about music in your life as a young child?

I cannot recall many childhood memories without music!  My mother was a music teacher, so it was very normal to hear music around the house and hear singing or chanting. She actually was my preschool music teacher, and many of the tunes I use now are from those years. I specifically remember instructions or default activities being sung instead of spoken. "Going to the grocery, grocery grocery. Going to the grocery, here we go" would be a sweet melody and sing-a-long moment.

 Now that you going to be mother yourself what are you looking forward to doing with your own child?

 I am thrilled with the idea of helping my child through early childhood development with arts play at home. I know that there will be breakthrough moments for me and my child together as he/she learns new skills and I learn new ways of identifying key strategies and developing creative methods.

Thank you, Alesha, for your wonderful stories and informative reflections. It’s exciting to welcome another Detroit Wolf Trap baby to our community!  It is also very affirming to know that you and many of Living Arts teaching artists are engaging young children in artful learning throughout the year.  

Alesha, like baby Dimas, is also observing, making connections and tracking results.  This is the “hook” that keeps our teaching artists curious about how to bring their art to early learners.  So in April we celebrate these little moments knowing they accumulate to make a big impact as children continue to grow and learn.

To learn more about Detroit Wolf Trap visit the program page!

The Artists:Roberta Lucas has been a Living Arts teaching artist since 2008. Roberta led El Arte Early Learning and then became the Affiliate Director for Detroit Wolf Trap from its inception through 2016. Her contributions to Living Arts include; the creation and implementation of ACT I: A PK-3rd grade drama program to support sustained reading growth, language acquisition and social emotional development, professional development for educators, coaching for teaching artists, and choreography for showcase performances. She performed and choreographed professional Dinner Theater and Children's Theater but modern dance was always the creative informer. Dance credits in Michigan include Linda Z. Smith, Lisa Novak, The Detroit Dance Collective and Laurie Eisenhower. She trained nationally with Judith Jamison, Deborah Hay, Trisha Brown, Bill Evans and Anna Halprin. As a National Master Artist for the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Through the Arts, Roberta conducted numerous classroom residencies, teacher professional development, and artist trainings throughout the United States and internationally. Roberta is a special lecturer at Oakland University teaching dance and education majors, “creative dance for children” and “performing arts (drama & dance)  in the elementary classroom”. Lucas maintains a Michigan L.L.P. and completed a MA in clinical and humanistic psychology at MiSPP. She is a 2015 graduate of Tamalpa Institute, Kentfield, CA.—Expressive Arts and Movement Therapy.

AleshaNicole" Mickens is a singer, songwriter, pianist, and arts educator. Her mother, a retired music teacher of 30 years with a M.A in Early Childhood Education, has been a great motivator and resource. Alesha grew up surrounded by musical talent and started singing and playing instruments at the age of 3. She began writing her own songs in middle school. Alesha graduated from Oakland University of Rochester Hills, MI with a double B.A in Spanish Language and Literature & Women and Gender Studies. From 2010-2015 she worked as a dueling piano player, traveling all over the United States to perform at various venues. During this time, she released two independent albums of her own original music: "Smiling Through Tears" (2012) and "Spread Love, Share Joy" (2014). AleshaNicole, as she is known artistically, is currently working on her third and fourth albums - "In Spirit, In Truth" and "Intertwine." AleshaNicole, along with her husband and partner Aaron JM (concept artist, poet, and screenwriter), launched Look Up Visions in 2015. Look Up Visions is a creative outreach program empowering Metro Detroit through art-infused methods of healing, self-discovery, transformation, and achieving oneness. She currently works as a teaching artist with Living Arts Detroit, bringing arts-infused education into both in-school and out of school programs, including the Detroit Wolftrap early childhood program. Being able to pair her talent with her passion for people and their personal growth gives her so much pleasure. Alesha is full of life, fun-loving, and she truly enjoys sharing her gift with the world.