Engaging NYC’s Youngest Learners - and Those Who Teach Them - Through The Arts

February 16, 2021 | Helen Barahal and Susan Barahal

Guest Authors:

Helen Barahal  @helenbarahal
Executive Director of Teaching and Learning, NYC Department of Education Division of Early Childhood Education

Susan Barahal, Ph.D.
Director, Art Education Program, Senior Lecturer, Department of Education Tufts University and The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

All humans have the capacity to make and understand art. If you’ve encountered a four year old you will have witnessed a small human capable of drawing, painting, singing, dancing, and pretending without regard to audience or review. These powerful abilities are part of what make us human. In New York City we have been working with groups of early childhood educators, to find their inner artists and by doing so, develop the capacity to create high quality arts activities for the children in their classrooms.

The transformation provided through art making is essential to our humanity, particularly in times of crisis. This past year has seen the COVID-19 pandemic reshape early childhood education. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color has been well documented. For children, families, and educators, particularly those of color, arts and art making are places to turn to renew humanity and express the sometimes inexpressible. The early childhood professional learning series Create, is one way the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Arts and Special Projects (OASP) and Division of Early Childhood Education (DECE) have teamed up to provide an arts-focused space for early childhood programs to learn and grow together. As we will see, art making can be transformative, even for those who teach art.


The New York City Department of Education serves 1.1 million students from birth through grade 12; approximately 100,000 of those students are in Pre-K or below. In 2014, the department began expanding its reach to offer Pre-K for All to all four-year-olds in the city. The expansion has ramped up in recent years, and now serves children from birth through Pre-K in a range of settings, including family child care homes, Pre-K centers, Head Start programs, community-based organizations, and public elementary schools. Of the approximately 1800 early childhood programs under DECE’s purview, only a small number are enrolled in the Create professional learning series this school year. Although demand is much higher, capacity constraints limit the number of programs that can be served.

Create provides a semester-worth of professional learning and coaching in four art forms: dance, music, theater, and visual art over the course of two years. Programs enrolled in Create receive toolkits of materials, and engage in an in-depth experience with each art form for a semester alongside a cohort of their peers. Educators and leaders from programs get to know each other and develop as a community of learners. Professional learning and coaching are provided by four of New York City’s premiere arts organizations: The Dance Education Lab at the 92 St Y, Third Street Music Settlement, The New Victory Theater, and Studio in a School and the program is supported by a public/private partnership through The Fund for Public Schools.

Create, in all its forms, is the legacy of Paul King, former Executive Director of the Office of Arts and Special Projects, who first conceived of the arts professional learning series for early childhood educators in 2016. Until his passing in early 2020 Paul was a fearless advocate for arts and arts education. He made sure that the arts were a core part of a New York City Public School education. He believed Create to be key because it reaches the city’s youngest learners and those who teach them. The mantle of his Create work is now carried by the OASP and DECE teams who understand how deeply passionate Paul was about ensuring high quality arts education for young children.

Early childhood teachers teach all content areas, including the arts, in an interdisciplinary way, through play and exploration. Without designated arts teachers, it can be a challenge to teach the arts in early childhood if teachers do not see themselves as particularly artistic or having some expertise in the different art forms. One of the main areas of focus for Create is allowing early childhood teachers to get in touch with themselves as artists. Each semester of Create begins with an in-depth professional learning experience that introduces teachers to an art form, followed by a coaching residency in which the arts organization provides a teaching artist to visit each classroom. Teaching artists provide coaching and support to help educators enact their art form in the classroom. They collaboratively set a goal with each teacher, and model and provide feedback through a gradual release approach so that by the end of the semester educators are independently providing high quality arts experiences for their children. Each semester ends with a Share Fair in which educators share student work samples, videos, and photos of what they have accomplished in the specific art form. All these experiences had to move online because of COVID-19 and the Create team has been working to adapt each piece of the program for the virtual space. Virtual or in-person, the focus is on transformative art experience.

Create Teaching Artists Go In-Depth in Four Art Forms

Teaching Artists are at the heart of Create. Having access to trained professional artists who also have knowledge and understanding of developmentally appropriate practice for young children is an invaluable asset provided by the four arts organizations. "New Victory has been proud to partner with DECE and OASP on Create since 2013. Theater, dance, music and visual arts education benefits all kids and helps them express themselves in the fullest ways possible, and this is particularly true for students who are pre-verbal or are multilingual learners. At New Victory, we've done extensive research on the link between the performing arts and a child's social-emotional development, and we can say with confidence that arts education is an invaluable tool for offering children agency while sparking joy in their learning," says Courtney J. Boddie, New 42 Vice President, Education and School Engagement. 

"At New Victory, we've done extensive research on the link between the performing arts and a child's social-emotional development, and we can say with confidence that arts education is an invaluable tool for offering children agency while sparking joy in their learning." 
- Courtney J. Boddie, New 42 Vice President, Education and School Engagement

Through engaging with Dance Education Lab Teaching Artists (TAs) early childhood teachers discover how dance can contribute to all areas of learning, including self-regulation and spatial awareness. Teachers begin by expanding their own movement repertoire and movement vocabulary.  They learn to lead students in warmups and guided explorations that culminate in sequences. TAs shared that throughout this past semester teachers increased their level of confidence in managing and guiding students and also modeling movement for them. They proudly shared excerpts of their learning with other colleagues in the Share Fair event. They shared that “the lesson plans created by teachers showed their progress in understanding and so did their reflections in our debrief times.” The benefits of integrating movement and dance in early childhood reach all students especially those who may have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Whether virtual or in person, dance offers opportunities for children to engage in a holistic play-based way that includes multiple modalities and senses, and it has offered teachers the opportunity to use their bodies to express themselves throughout this difficult time.

Teachers who engaged in the interactive virtual professional learning experiences with Third Street Music School this year shared that they gained comfort singing and inventing songs with children. Many expressed that the opportunity to engage with Third Street’s TAs helped them begin to feel comfortable singing and they learned the value of children being able to express themselves through music. Some also shared that as a result of their time with Third Street they now have a wider view of the power of music for young children. Music paired with movement, whether it be finger plays or simply walking around the room at the speed they feel matches the music, gives children another way to express themselves.

Through the theater-focused semester with New Victory, TAs were able to guide teachers to see the limitless possibilities in pretend play. Some teachers initially shared reservations about incorporating theater as an art form into their classrooms. TAs heard from some teachers that they were not “dramatic or artistic” or that they don’t use puppets in the classroom. The semester with New Victory gave teachers the opportunity to experience activities themselves, to play with shadows, puppets, and engage in story wooshes. This allowed them to observe their children’s play in new ways.

After participating in the semester-long visual art experience with Studio in a School TAs, early childhood educators shared that they appreciated the professional learning space to reflect on the art activities they have been offering children. Many spoke about valuing the artmaking process over the product, and trusting children as they began to create art, in spite of what some may consider messiness. The impact of educators’ professional learning is most salient when observing their children. One observation witnessed a timid child who was selectively mute in the classroom. She was engrossed in painting through the Studio in a School process of beginning with limited color choices and gradually expanding. When educators introduced red and yellow paint to the repertoire she said, “I made a sun.” Painting allowed her to communicate.

Art as Transformation for the Art Educator

We know from the vantage point of higher education that the process of becoming an art educator is a transformative one. We spoke with recent graduates of the Tufts Master of Arts in Teaching in art education program. Many shared that teaching art to children not only makes them think differently about the artistic process but also informs their own artmaking practices. While enrolled at Tufts and participating in student teaching experiences, many wondered if they would be able to hold their PK-12 students’ interest and engage them in lessons that would be meaningful and relevant. Some pedagogically illuminating responses from recent alumni shared a common theme: a newfound focus on process over product. Through teaching art they, “became much less restrictive and embraced the idea of play and messing about,” and they now “think more about process, and meaning, and expressing ideas, rather than just focusing on form or composition or aesthetics.”

“...we can transform our art classrooms into microcosms of the nation, and address cultural issues in a way that breaks down barriers and builds up community and understanding."

In reflecting on how teaching art has impacted their own art making many again focused on the process. “I think about it more in terms of a process and a therapeutic experience, rather than a means to an end.” One recent graduate shared that they have learned to “make art for the joy of it, not for the sole purpose of creating a thing.” Some also shared that teaching art opened their eyes to social injustices. “I learned how we can transform our art classrooms into microcosms of the nation, and address cultural issues in a way that breaks down barriers and builds up community and understanding. Additionally, the older I get, I see myself applying the same concepts to my everyday life – asking questions, listening, digging deeper, and connecting people and ideas together.”

More Important Now Than Ever

There is evident impact of the arts and art-making on educators and children alike. The arts have always been an integral part of children’s experience. But now more than ever arts and arts education are essential as children, families, and teachers navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impacts on communities of color. Art making is a powerful experience that all children should enjoy, and Create allows us to share transformative professional learning with the early childhood teachers who use what they learn in their classrooms every day.

As we continue to engage early childhood teachers through virtual professional learning experiences this year, we are expanding beyond teachers of three and four year olds to explore what Create can do for teachers and families of infants and toddlers, and the impacts on communities. Pairing up arts partner organizations with New York City Early Education Centers (NYCEECs) that serve infants and toddlers, run by community based organizations, DECE and OASP are working to see how the impacts of Create can move outward. The Children’s Museum of Manhattan and Spellbound Theater Company have each collaboratively designed family arts workshops alongside NYCEEC program staff adopting a Creative Placemaking approach. The approach is meant to value and strengthen communities from within, starting with the strengths and desires of those within the community. This pilot will continue through the 20/21 school year and DECE and OASP will use what is learned to continue developing arts programming for children aged birth to two and their families.

Through Create we have seen the power of the arts to transform individuals; it also has the power to transform communities. For many young children, especially those in communities hardest hit by the pandemic, early childhood programs are a primary point of exposure to the arts. As we as a city, and as a nation, continue to move through uncertain times, the power of the arts to transform must be elevated.

Susan Barahal Headshot
Susan Barahal
Helen Barahal
Helen Barahal


About the Authors: 
Helen Barahal (TW: @helenbarahal) is Executive Director of Teaching and Learning at the NYC Department of Education's Division of Early Childhood Education. Susan Barahal, Ph.D. is Director of the Art Education Program, Senior Lecturer, Department of Education Tufts University and The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.