Art engages children’s and adolescent’s senses in open-ended play and supports the development of cognitive, social-emotional and multisensory skills. As children progress into elementary school and beyond, art continues to provide opportunities for brain development, self-regulation, self-esteem and creativity.  Creating art can validate the uniqueness of an individual, which gives rise to a sense of accomplishment and to feelings of self-worth. In numerous studies, the arts have been shown to support a sense of social identity and can encourage goal-directed behavior, and enhance social resilience.  Yes, the transformative power of the visual arts is really that powerful!


Individual artistic expression is a powerful tool for young people to process their thoughts and emotions in what should be a safe, inclusive and nonjudgmental space. We see it play out in our CREATE classrooms every day. Every unique artwork tells a story that is authentic and meaningful to the artist, from their choice of paintbrush or sculpting tool, to their artistic vision brought to life on canvas.  The artistic process engages young brains to gain insights about self and make forward progress in developing a positive self of self and belonging. It’s not about becoming the next Picasso (although the visual arts makes all things possible!). It’s as much about the journey as the finished product.  

Adolescence is a challenging time when teens experience physical, psychological and cognitive changes. Every adult has memories of their own adolescent struggle to develop their sense of self and belonging, to their family, peers and community. This stage of development is encompassing, painful, exciting, frightening and exhilarating! So many of us parents have experienced that (sometimes painful) phase where our kids pull away from us in their all too hurry to grow up! Often leading to conflict and tension. That it’s a normal part of adolescent development doesn’t make it any less challenging for parents! 


Creative Youth Development (CYD) programs provide learning opportunities for youth and develop life skills such as: self-control, awareness, reflection, responsibility.  Art Education Programs with a strong CYD approach typically incorporate opportunities for youth to work together on collaborative art work such as murals or other large-scale mediums. Through this creative group work youth constantly practice their social skills. They make decisions in groups regarding artistic choices (such as theme and subject, medium, composition, color) and work together on the art making process through which they learn communication skills, conflict resolution and leadership skills. 

Creative Youth Development provides positive experience, sense of competency and experience of success. In programs that involve exhibitions of final artwork, these positive outcomes are reinforced by the positive recognition from the audience and help build self-confidence and sense of self.  This is why CREATE provides free and reduced fee art education programs for young learners from low-income households, for whom cost is a barrier to participation. For students struggling in school due to social and cultural differences, marginalization process, learning disabilities and other non-hegemony characteristics, access to the visual arts not only helps boost their social and academic skills (language and literacy skills as an example), but also gives them an opportunity to share their perspective, to discover their “voice” and to experience success. Key to any CYD program are racial equity and social justice.  


In 2005, CREATE launched a pilot program called smARTkids, aimed at level the playing field for struggling young students to access the many cognitive, social and academic benefits of the visual arts by providing smARTkids free to students from low-income families. A typical smARTkids student is an English learner from a traditionally marginalized community, who struggles with language and literacy skills, is Free and Reduced Meal (FARM) eligible.  Today, smARTkids is a model for success, impacting thousands of students from 16 local Montgomery County, MD schools. 


The smARTkids curriculum was designed by CREATE’s experienced art therapists and art educators with the goal of helping students express themselves through success-oriented activities that teach literacy, critical thinking and social skills.

●          Each class includes a healthy snack, story-time and journaling with drawing and writing and following group art instruction, students work on art projects, completing at least four throughout each 8 to 10-week semester

●          Improve literacy through projects that include art, writing and reading, such as journaling with drawing and writing; storytelling through cartooning; making puppets and writing puppet shows

●          Improve social skills and peer relationships through facilitated discussions in the context of the students’ art projects

●          Enrich students’ after school life through a high-quality enrichment program

●          Provide additional adult-student engagement in small groups

●          Increase creativity and enjoyment of art

●          Engage families by including them in student art shows where students’ display and discuss their work, gaining positive recognition for their efforts


●          Students in the smARTkids Program have shown an improved attitude toward school, learning and themselves, and gained confidence to engage more in classroom activities

●          Less absenteeism and less conflict with peers and teachers

●          Teachers and parents report that students participating in smARTkids have less disruptive behavior at school and home, have increased attention span and an improved attendance at school

CREATE hopes to expand the number of schools participating in our smARTkids program in Fall 2022, but the demand for the program currently exceeds our budget.  That said, we are committed to securing funds to expand to at least two new schools this Fall.  

                                                                                    Authored by CREATE Staff