New Ways of Thinking: Innovative Remote Learning for Young Children

As a provider of visual arts programs and career development opportunities for learners of every age, Studio Institute draws from experience honed over 40-plus years working with children, families, and educators in New York City.

In 2020, with funding from the Turrell Foundation, Studio Institute trained a roster of local professional artists to support a pre-K partnership program in Newark. In collaboration with local partner, La Casa de Don Pedro, we launched an Early Childhood program in Newark at three Head Start sites.

Young artists in Newark explore color in remote painting classes this spring.

This year, our partnership has expanded to include seven sites: two Early Head Start programs serving children from 1-1/2 to 3-years of age, and five Head Start programs serving children from age 3 to 4-1/2. To meet their needs, we developed a new exploration-based visual arts curriculum for two-year-olds, which is being implemented at La Casa’s new infant and toddler site on Dewey Street along with aligned professional learning for teachers and assistant teachers.

The new pre-K program was designed to be implemented onsite; however, with the complications presented by the pandemic, we realized that we needed to develop innovative remote learning that would better meet the needs of young children and families.

As part of the retooling process, we considered that many of the elements included in our onsite programs were no longer viable: our visual arts implementations could no longer include choice time (where children select their own materials and activities), small and large learning groups, or access to a wide range of art materials and supplies. 

Not being physically present in the classroom made us rethink how we conceive of and deliver art experiences to children. Working collaboratively with Studio Institute staff and artist instructors, we agreed on three key elements that should be included in every visual arts experience for children:

  • Observing, understanding and articulating the environment
  • Actively using tools and materials for one’s own purposes, and
  • Having an emotionally fulfilling and soothing experience

What came to the fore as a viable means of replacing or supplementing the traditional classroom experience, was family involvement. We found that for young children, remote learning is family involvement; older siblings and adult caregivers are right there with them, working side-by-side. These sessions became rich and positive experiences at a time when children and families very much need them.

Remote Learning has also provided valuable training opportunities for Institute staff and artists instructors, allowing them to come together as an ensemble to engage in deep and powerful learning. We were able to gather our Cleveland, Memphis, and Newark artists as a single group for 12 sessions.

We found that the working relationship with artists and teachers has strengthened and become more focused without the distractions of the classroom. They collaborate on Zoom, encouraging children and helping parents together. What the artist instructors have learned about building this relationship will carry forward when they are back in classrooms.

Finally, remote learning has changed the nature of our professional learning sessions with classroom teachers. No longer having the luxury of a full-day or even a half-day onsite with teachers, made us rethink how to distill essential content into only an hour-and-a-half.

Teachers at the three original Head Start sites expressed gratitude at seeing their teaching artists return this year. Art classes have become an anchor and a joyful experience for the teachers as well as families and children. One teacher said: “I was so happy to see [our artist instructor] Angel Fosuhene come back! We need you!”

To offer emotional support to teachers, we now begin each session with an adult art-making experience before we engage them with a child-focused exploration. Even when we go back into schools, we plan to continue this practice.

Although rethinking one’s practice isn’t always easy, it was rewarding to be able to adapt successfully to major changes in the way we deliver our services—and still provide a rich and engaging learning experience for children.