Young Audiences of Massachusetts Brings Arts Learning to Local Boston Area Hospitals

March 03, 2017 |

Incorporating the arts in the healing process not only helps to stimulate the mind, but studies show that the arts can help aid in physical healing as well.  According to an article “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature” by Heather Stuckey “Engagement with creative activities has the potential to contribute toward reducing stress and depression and can serve as a vehicle for alleviating the burden of chronic disease.” That’s why Young Audiences Arts for Learning Massachusetts (YAMA) created the Healing Arts for Kids, Arts Learning for Health and Care program. Created by Young Audiences of Massachusetts program director, Gail Zarren, Healing Arts for Kids provides residencies, workshops, and performances for acutely and chronically ill children, physically and cognitively challenged children, and special education populations in schools, hospital schools, hospitals and other healing centers.

Gail Zarren is a passionate advocate for the arts and has led many initiatives to cultivate the arts in Massachusetts for the past 25 years. As Program Director of Expanded Arts Access and Healing Arts for Kids at Young Audiences of Massachusetts, she has developed and implemented arts education programs in a variety of educational and healing institutions serving youth. Gail brings her expertise as a licensed clinical social worker to her work with teaching artists, creating and providing programs for special needs students. Gail has presented at numerous conferences related to the value of using the arts for the education and wellness of children.

Gail began designing the Healing Arts for Kids program 9 years ago, with the goal of reaching children in hospitals and hospital schools – schools operated mainly in children’s hospitals – who weren’t receiving the in-depth arts education that more traditional schools provide. Children in hospitals and healing centers were receiving therapeutic forms of art but these programs often lacked an educational component. This is when Gail decided to bring the performances, residencies and workshops to them. What makes YAMA’s program special is the emphasis they place on the healing components the arts deliver, as well as providing a strong element of arts learning.

The teaching artists that YAMA brings to these programs provide experiences that initiate artistic, social, cultural, and academic engagement, provide distraction from discomfort and pain, create laughter and a positive healing environment. They also help to build connections among children, families, artists, and staff which foster education and well-being, and cultivate feelings of hope and accomplishment for the children. Not only does the Healing Arts for Kids program benefit the children, but it also positively affects the teaching artists who are involved, as they have the chance to hear and learn from the children, child life specialists, their teachers, and therapists. Young Audiences of Massachusetts has provided free and subsidized programs in Floating Hospital for Children/Tufts Medical Center, Boston, MA; Franciscan Hospital for Children/Kennedy Day School, Brighton, MA; Massachusetts Hospital School, Canton, MA, The Cotting School in Lexington, MA; as well as other healing centers and hospitals in the Boston area.

One of Gail’s favorite memories involved a 5th grade boy with autism, who would rarely engage in the arts or performances with his classmates at school. It wasn’t until they brought in a teaching artist who provided a singing program that his interest with the arts began to blossom. Throughout the course of the residency program he grew more and more involved and became more engaged in the content and with his classmates. By the time the culminating performance came around, the youngster was singing front and center on the stage with his classmates, his voice heard above all the others.

Another experience involved a 16-year-old student in one of YAMA’s visual arts programs who was very quiet and hardly spoke to anyone. When it came time for the students to display their final visual arts projects, he and his other classmates had to begin their presentation by introducing themselves to the audience. His teachers, worried that he would pass on the mic without saying anything, were amazed and pleased when he spoke into that microphone and introduced himself. His experiences working with the teaching artists and his peers throughout the residency allowed him to grow more confident and express himself more easily.

When children are given the opportunity to express themselves, especially through the arts, it can amaze people how much their personalities shine through. These experiences help serve as a reminder to themselves that while they may have challenges they still have many strengths.

Director Gail Zarren states “I really love this program. There is an aspect of the arts that is healing for the providers as well for as the community they are serving.” The arts provide joyful and engaging experiences which helps to create a positive healing environment.  As Pablo Picasso once said “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

If you would like to learn more about this program, including how to bring Arts Learning for Health and Care to students at your special needs schools and healing centers, please contact Gail Zarren, Director, at 617-629-9262 x 304 or