Art, Music, Dance Therapy

Collage of items gathered on a walk near the ocean.
Collage of items gathered on a walk near the ocean.

Art, music and dance are all suited to using an Active Learning approach, and they are areas that offer so much to students with significant developmental disabilities. 

While not every school district has a full time art, music, or dance therapist on staff,  many do. What do these therapies focus on and how can an Active Learning approach be used with them?

Art therapy is used to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.

American Art Therapy Association


Art Therapy

One of the many enjoyable activities that can be focused on using an Active Learning approach is art, specifically visual or tactual art. In addition to being fun, children can practice important skills such as fine and gross motor skills, self-determination skills, social skills, sensory efficiency skills, and self-regulation skills. 

One of the important principles of Active Learning that works so well with art therapy is the notion that the activity (art) is self-initiated. An art therapist working with the team can help design many activities that the child can initiate on his/her own with only minimal support from an adult. So, rather than art projects that are primarily done by the adult working with the child, your art therapist might be able to help the team identify activities that match the child’s current skills and emotional developmental level (Five Phases of Educational Treatment). For example, a child with little or no vision, would more likely enjoy art activities that are very tactual in nature such as playing with clay, finger painting, creating collages from found objects, making a wreath  with herbs and fragrant flowers poked into Styrofoam.

If a child needs support from an adult to complete an activity, consider where the child is emotionally and socially. If they are functioning under the developmental age of 2 years, they will probably not be able to complete a project that is very complex or requires a lot of attention. They may also not be willing to work with the adult to follow directions. So consider activities like finger painting or painting with pudding that the child can do anyway they like and then let the adult shape the resulting material into a specific shape. Here are a few ideas:

      • Finger paint with fall colors then have the adult cut the resulting design into leave shapes and glue them to a tree. 
      • Give the child a tray filled with kinetic sand and provide a variety of objects for him/her to poke into the sand. Offer tools like straws, chopsticks, pieces of wood that can be used to draw in the sand.
      • Use a tray and let the child drip paint colors on the tray. Use a spoon or other tool to swirl the colors around. Place a square of bubble wrap on top of the paint and let the child pat or poke. Use the painted  bubble wrap to make a print on paper.
      • Off the child a collection of fruits and vegetables that they can dip into yogurt or pudding and press on to paper.
      • Tape adhesive-backed paper sticky side up to a tray. Give the child various materials to play with such as sand, tissue paper pieces, feathers, etc. to pat onto the paper.

Sharing the Work: Making Paper-bag Puppets

In this video Patty Obrzut and her student share the work to create paper-bag puppets of Sesame Street characters, something Jalen loves. Note that she does not do for him what he can do for himself, but is available to offer support if he wants it.

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The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) defines dance/movement therapy as the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive and physical integration of the individual.

American Dance Therapy Association

Dance therapy provides many benefits for children with significant developmental delays, even children who are deaf. Music is motivating and often gets the child moving on his/her own when nothing else can. Think of all the wonderful videos on TikTok of babies and others dancing!

Here are just a few of the benefits  of dance:

      1. Overall physical fitness 
      2. Improvements in flexibility, strength, and motor skills
      3. An increase in confidence and self-esteem
      4. An outlet for creativity and imagination
      5. Excellent stress relief

Research supports connections between speech and singing, rhythm and motor behavior, memory for recall and retention of academic material, and overall ability of preferred music to enhance mood, attention, and behavior to optimize the student’s ability to learn and interact. Rhythmic movement helps develop gross motor skills (mobility, agility, balance, coordination) as well as respiration patterns and muscular relaxation. Because music has the capacity to be customized or altered to meet individual needs it can be used to motivate movements or structure exercises that are prescribed in physical rehabilitation. Involvement in music may provide a favorable alternative to pain, discomfort, and anxiety often associated with some disabilities.

Music is processed by a different area of the brain than speech and language; so a student may be able to more easily interpret and absorb information and skills presented with music. One of the purposes of music therapy for students with disabilities is to provide the student with initial support using melodic and rhythmic strategies, followed by fading of musical cues to aid in generalization and transfer to other learning environments within the school setting.

Fact Sheet – Music Therapy in Special Education

American Music Therapy Association

Kayden Sitting on Drums

In this video we see a 5-year-old girl seated on a stack of two gathering drums. After playing with the drums, she is introduced to a Meinl Helix Bowl, which she explores.

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Noah Banging with a Drumstick

In this video we see Noah seated at a table with various instruments that are played by banging on them with a stick. Noah is exploring the drumstick by using different ends of the stick to tap on the table.

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Jack Rockin’ and Rolling on the Floor

In the video below, we see Jack at home, laughing, rocking and rolling on the floor while Chubby Checker sings, “Let’s Twist Again”.