Fine Arts

One of the underlying principles of Active Learning is that all individuals should be active participants, and that materials and the environment should be adapted in such a way as to encourage this.   As such, the emphasis is on the process of activities, rather than the product.  This means that facilitating exploration to promote cognitive and physical development is the goal.  With an art project, for example, learners should be given materials that are interesting to explore and the activity should be at their developmental level.  Adults should not manipulate the learner’s hands.  Adults may model an appropriate activity nearby and assure the materials are positioned in ways that the child can actively participate. 

Trees made by pasting torn tissue paper on the image of a tree.
Trees made by pasting torn tissue paper on the image of a tree.

The Fine Arts are a wonderful part of the curriculum that all children can enjoy. Unfortunately, many of the art activities are at a higher developmental level than is appropriate for these children. Also frequently they are not accessible for children who are blind or have visual impairment. However, there are many wonderful activities that help support learning in various content areas.

The Fine Arts include visual arts, music and theater. The types of things the child in the earliest developmental levels (under the developmental age of 4 years) focuses on include such skills as:

    • using a variety of art materials and activities for sensory experience and exploration;
    • using art as a form of creative self-expression and representation;
    • demonstrating an interest in and showing appreciation for the creative work of others;
    • participating in classroom music activities including singing, playing musical instruments, and moving to rhythms;
    • responding to different musical styles through movement and play; and
    • creating or recreating stories, moods, or experiences through dramatic representations.

Creating visual art projects and musical play are typical activities for most classrooms. Many of the activities that are included in literacy and reading utilize activities such as acting out stories and rhymes. Not all children will be able to independently engage in all of these activities, but all activities can be structured so that the child can participate more fully in fine art instruction. 

Visual Arts

Paper fish stuffed with paper.
Paper fish stuffed with paper.

It is important to adapt the activity so that the child can be active. Too often art activities are primarily done by an adult “assisting” the child. It is important to consider the child’s developmental level when you plan your activity. Is the child ready to interact with an adult or share the work? If not, the activity needs to involve something the child can do alone or with little adult involvement. So if the child is into banging or patting, incorporate that skills in gluing various materials onto paper. What can the child do with his or her hands? What if the child isn’t using his hands but loves to mouth things? Instead of finger-painting with paint, use pudding or yogurt.

Sand and shell collage.
Sand and shell collage.
Here are a few ideas, but you can find many others on the web at sites like My Little Moppet, Tinker Lab or on Paths to Literacy.
    • Let the child play with a variety of materials like tiny pebbles, rice, beans, seeds, flower petals, leaves, ribbon, and twigs and pat them onto paper that is covered with glue. The paper can then be cut into shapes that are decorative by the adult.
    • Let the child help assemble a collage from torn paper, fabric scraps, or other materials.
    • Play with papier-mache. clay or wax to make free-form sculpture.
    • Finger-paint on paper, vegetables, paper plates. You can use edible “paints” like pudding or yogurt if this child likes to explore with his mouth.
    • Use paint brushes and paint the outside wall with water or mud.
    • Use ink stamps, vegetable stamps, or leaves to decorate paper or boxes.
    • Crumple paper and put it in paper bags, socks, gloves or other clothe shapes to create soft sculpture.
    • Make rainsticks using cardboard tubes, Pringles cans, or other tubes letting the student help pour rice, beans or other materials inside.
Jalen and Patty Obrzut create images on asphalt using chalk .
Jalen and Patty Obrzut create images on asphalt using chalk .

In this picture we see Patty Obrzut playing with her student, Jalen, using chalk on pavement. During this activity Jalen attempts to draw some of the characters in a story he is telling. When he needs help, he direct Patty to draw it saying, “You draw it.” This activity encourages Jalen to be creative while getting support to draw what he imagines but feels unable to draw himself. Patty uses the Phase 4 educational treatment of Sharing the Work to provide the support Jalen needs for his social and emotional development. This activity works on fine motor skills at the same time it focuses on literacy and fine arts.

Music Arts

A young girl plays a toy accordion.
A young girl plays a toy accordion.

Music ignites all areas of child development and skills for school readiness, including intellectual, social-emotional, motor, language, and overall literacy. It helps the body and the mind work together. Exposing children to music during early development helps them learn the sounds and meanings of words. Dancing to music helps children build motor skills while allowing them to practice self-expression. For children and adults, music helps strengthen memory skills.


Many of children who have significant disabilities automatically have access to music therapy. But even if the child does not have this type of service, much can be done at home and at school utilizing music. Parents commonly “dance” around with their child while singing or listening to music. Encourage your child to move their body on their own in what ever way they can: a head movement, arm movement, or wiggling their body.

    • Offer your child a wide variety of music and see which songs he or she responds to best with movement or vocalizations;
    • Provide a variety of musical instruments for your child to explore such as harmonicas, castanets, rubber-band boxes and trays, guitars, penny whistles or slide whistles;
    • Sing songs while moving or doing hand plays (e.g. Itsy, Bitsy, Spider) while interacting with the child;
    • Recite nursery rhymes and include movement or handplay with them;
    • Bang on pots, pans, drums, boxes and other items with hands, spoons, sticks;
    • Use a song or rhyme to signal the start of an activity or as a way to transition to a new activity.

Bryan and the Drum

When bored, Brian will bang his head. When given any materials, all Brian knows to do is bang on it. When the activity is changed to playing with a drum, this allows him to use the banging movement to achieve a different effect from banging his head.

Play Full Video


Theater Arts

A young boy tries on a hat and explores a pair of sunglasses.
A young boy tries on a hat and explores a pair of sunglasses.

Children love stories and love to be read to by an adult or peer. This not only support language development, but helps the child learn to listen and recall a familiar story or rhyme. Children develop greater self-esteem when they perform for others, use their imaginations, and engage in creative problem-solving skills when creating a story or acting one out. They may also gain empathy for others or be able to share their feelings easier through dramatic play.

There are many activities that can build on a child’s skills related to the theater arts. Here are just a few ideas:

    • Act out various emotions with the child such as sad, excited, angry, silly, etc. and give them a name;
    • Move the body or arms to illustrate aspects of a familiar story or poem (e.g. Patty Cake, stirring a pot of Stone soup or tramping over a bridge as in Three Billy Goats Gruff);
    • Play dress-up with various hats, wigs, shoes, clothes, etc.;
    • Recall a recent activity by acting out the movements the child made during the activity and let the child use his/her movements to relate the experience to you;
    • Children at higher developmental levels become interested in pretend and should be given many opportunities to participate in activities with peers and adults.

Jalen Creates a Parade

Jalen loves Sesame Street and Chucky Cheese. In order to turn what motivates him into an activity, Patty provides Sesame Street figures and other objects for him to play with constructively. It is important to note that children at the earliest developmental levels may not be able to engage in pretend play. Adults might model some of the actions with the child while telling a story or singing a song, but until the child is about two developmentally they may not be able to share directly in this activity.