Every Tuesday after school a group of about 20 students at Midvalley Elementary gather in a room and decompress their day. They chat, color and eat snacks for a bit and then it’s down to business.
As the kids make their way to the floor, assembling themselves in an oblong circle the size of the classroom, their leader, Judd Hardy, prepares them for the day’s activities. The main goal of this pilot after-school program, called Arts-Kids, is to help children learn to express themselves through a 10-week course of exposure to artists in every genre.
“I want to create a space where each of you feel super safe,” Hardy tells the kids as he holds a brightly colored, squiggly, fuzzy “talking stick.”
So far, the students have learned about yoga, painting, dancing and expressing their emotions. But it all starts in the circle.
Here, the kids take turns passing around the talking stick and sharing their inner thoughts. The rules are simple: speak up when it’s your turn, listen when it’s not. Discuss your high of the day, your low, and your intention for the rest of the class.
At first, the responses are just as you’d expect.
“My high for the day is coming to Arts-Kids,” one girl said. “My low is it rained on me today and I didn’t like getting wet.”
“My high is playing with my friends,” another said. “My low is I had to do a lot of math.”
But then the kids start to share experiences that are more serious.
“I was bullied today,” some of the kids say.
“I failed a math class.”
The rest of the group listens as each student takes a turn talking. Learning to express thoughts and feelings is paramount to dealing with difficult situations, like bullying, social pressures or problems at home, in a healthy way says Pat Drewry Sanger, executive director and founder of Arts-Kids. The program has been functioning in Park City School District for the last 15 years and on the Ute reservation since 2008.
Arts-Kids is now at Midvalley Elementary School as part of a pilot program. Sanger hopes to expand the program to other schools and reach as many children as possible. Her inspiration to start the program grew from her experiences working with children as an Advanced Practice Psychiatric-Mental Health Registered Nurse and Child and Adolescent Specialist.
“The focus is to introduce the students to as many different way of self-expression so they can find what speaks to them,” Drewry Sanger said. “We’ve seen kids that didn’t speak in public maybe even start to talk too much. I think Arts-Kids has helped them find some joy in a stressful situation.”