“The arts can open new worlds and experiences to the youth, enrich their vocabulary; develop critical thinking skills, equity and social justice… they can go on journeys they would never be able to afford.” Rexdale School Principal
It’s early April and the first day of a new DAREarts program. 30 children, 9 year olds, from 15 different schools gather and take their place in the DAREarts opening circle. Here there are no corners, no ends or fringes. Everyone is equal. Many of the children are nervous, shy and unsure; everything is new to them. They are at DAREarts on a school day, as they will be for one day each week for the next 12. “You are here,” the DAREarts teacher, calls out, “because you are special; you are a leader. Your schools have nominated you to be their representatives because they know that you have the potential to be an excellent leader, and we know that you have it in you to be that extra special leader, too.” The children, who face life challenges such as poverty, violence, hopelessness, bullying, social isolation or patterns of delinquency listen with interest. For many of the children, these encouraging words are in sharp contrast to the labels they are given at home, on the playground or on the street. Even at the age of 9, many have already started to define themselves by what they are called.
On the first day, the children all share the labels they have been given. Collectively, this is the picture it creates:
Over the next 12 weeks, the children undergo an incredible shift, guided by the “DARE” values of Discipline, Action, Responsibility, and Excellence, made possible by an incredible tool: the arts.
The arts. They instruct, educate, console, inspire, sooth, unite and delight. Time and time again, research proves that the arts have a profound impact on children’s lives in promoting confidence, increasing cognitive learning and even improving emotional well-being. But what about for children who are told and feel: “You are worthless”, “You are pathetic”, “You are bad”, “You are nothing”? THIS is where the arts make an especially important difference. The creative, experiential learning that is made possible through arts education and experiences show children what they can do. If they can prove to themselves that they can “do art”, keep a beat in a drum circle, learn to dance a hip-hop sequence, photograph a downtown building, sculpt a gargoyle out of clay, and perform a scene from Shakespeare, they see that they really can do more than they previously thought possible, today and in the future. This form of positive risk-taking motivates and encourages children to ignite change in themselves and those around them.
“I dare myself to do new things without fear.” Thomas, 13
The arts offer a unique way for individuals, especially children, to reimagine themselves and their futures. Stanford University Professor, Shirley Brice Heath, has shown that “[t]hrough the arts, one must engage in the present with the future; the artist must see beyond the moment or the usual to what can be next and must see the self as possible in the making. The arts both form knowledge in themselves and ensure understanding beyond the immediate.” With this, the arts can be used as a means for transforming anger and despair into optimism about the future.
When it comes to working with populations of at-risk children, the value of the arts is indisputable and is correlated with advantages that extend into the classroom. The Toronto District School Board reports that children who participate in arts activities outside of school are 1.2 times more likely to experience academic resiliency. What’s more, children who use creative problem solving skills, as taught in arts programming such as DAREarts, are 1.49 times more likely to have academic resiliency. The value, then, of arts programming is not limited to art-specific skills, but extends to many aspects of one’s sense of self, hope for the future and resolve for the present.
At closing circle on the last day of the DAREarts program, we ask the same children to complete this sentence: “I am _____.” Here’s what they have said:
So, can art change the future?
“I feel like I was here for a special reason, and one day I could be a leader.” Gr. 5 DAREarts student
Our youth certainly can.
Since 1996, DAREarts’ unique approach of using the arts to empower at-risk kids has unlocked the potential of over 200,000 youth. By engaging in hands-on arts workshops, they develop confidence, courage and leadership skills to ignite change in their lives with hope for their future. DAREarts’ work is made possible through partnerships with many leading Canadian artists and arts organizations across the country. We are grateful to Artbomb for supporting organizations, such as DAREarts, that empower at-risk youth through the arts and applaud Artbomb for its exceptional work in promoting Canada’s most talented artists.