Can Art Better Children's Lives?


Mona Brookes

Author of: "Drawing with Children"

Founder of: Monart Drawing School Franchise Chain


For 27 years I have had the rare opportunity of following thousands of children's lives in relationship to a drawing program that I designed. When I first began to teach my curriculum, which is called Monart, I thought it was simply to expose people of all ages to the world of drawing and help them enjoy my passion. Little did I know that within a few years I would be more interested in the side benefits of the program than the actual activity of drawing.


I had around 800 students in the first Monart School and my satellite locations. Most of the students started around 4 or 5 years old and many stayed well into pre-teens. This gave me a large enough group of children to enable me to seriously follow their growth and development, not only in their drawing ability but also in their personal lives. Parents continually told me that their hyperactive and unfocussed children did better in school and found an activity that replaced obsessive TV watching or boredom. I heard stories like, "the only thing that kept her together during our divorce was her love of art and working on the drawings from class," or "John was failing in school and so distracted. He learned to concentrate and his attention span grew from his love of doing art", or "drawing is the first thing that he has put any energy and serious thought to because he enjoys it so much. Now it is suddenly showing up in other subjects."


Within a few years my teachers began opening their own Monart Schools and I invariably heard the same kinds of positive results coming from their parents. I was asked to write books about the process and literally hundreds of thousands of teachers all over the world began reporting the same kind of results. Public school teachers reported that if they consistently used the academic based curriculum lessons that I designed, the students would increase their reading and writing skills as much as 20 percent at the end of the year. They explained that the visual perception skills gained through the eye exercises helped students focus and concentrate and that the activity of realistic drawing increased problem-solving abilities.


I could have never imagined that just starting a few art classes would end up with such powerful and exciting results. I never tire of seeing a parent bring in a depressed or insecure child and watch their eyes light up with the magic of creating a drawing that they love. It is so rewarding to watch a child who is supposed to be "ADD" or ADHD" perform with no problems and shine at something they love. I am so grateful that I get to talk to parents and educators and give them a tool that has built in motivation and guarantees successful results for all ages.


It is no accident I suppose that teaching art came late in life to me. My first go round in a career was in helping disturbed children and youth, without any focus on my interest in art. For 17 years prior to Monart I worked with children within the facilities of psychiatric clinics, juvenile detention facilities, drug rehab clinics, and job placement programs. I had a degree in psychology and thought I would always do work in that field. However, I always did my art on the side and thought of myself as a closet artist. I had wonderful supervisors who showed me how to be successful with difficult children and enjoyed a higher than average success rate with helping them change. Then I just simply burned out.


As I left working with the downtrodden and disturbed, I envisioned a new life; a life completely involved in supporting myself through my artistic abilities. But I would never have guessed that this adventure would eventually lead me to owning a chain of art schools, writing books about art and how people learn, and to be completely immersed as well in school districts all over the world. I have had the rare opportunity of working very closely inside public and private schools, without actually working for them. This has given me a different view of what is going on inside of them.


In the last few months there has been a new outcry of "What is Happening to Our Kids", "Why Can't they Learn", is there really a "Dumbing Down of America"? Bill Gates has been giving speeches regarding his worry that the last couple of generations of graduates are not capable of providing us with a work force that can function properly. January 2005 Time magazine's cover story was titled "They Just Won't Grow UP", with a picture of a mature man sitting in a sand box and a side bar that reads, "Meet the Twixters, young adults who live off their parents, and bounce from job to job". This has inspired me to come back on the scene and share my updated experiences and opinions about this topic.


After 25 years of working with the schools I am watching a new phenomena. Parents are not waiting any more for the schools to "get it right". They are providing their children with the arts and exciting ways to learn at home. They are taking their children to commercial establishments to learn to read and do math and soccer fields and YMCA's to get physical education and Play Groups to engage in learning through play. I am finally turning to parents and saying, "Do not wait for the schools to provide you with the arts again. It may never happen. You can find ways to give these gifts to your children at home."


My biggest advice has to do with what kinds of things you provide for your children. Television is a killer of the brain and video games seem to hype them up into being literally wired the wrong way. Think about buying art supplies instead of endless piles of toys. We all want to please our children, and it can take a strong stand to resist the easy way out. But if you provide them with something else they like, the transition can go faster than you think. My own child rebelled when I got rid of the television. Thirty years later he has chosen not to have it for his own children because of the many things he enjoyed once it was gone. I have not had television for 30 years. I know I would never have expanded my world into what it entails now if I still had it.


There are all kinds of learning tools on computers that are fun. Find the ones that do not involve violence and stressful energies. You may think it does not matter that much, but believe me it does. So many of the teenage youth offenders that I worked with sited a particular violent act they were copying from the TV and the movies. It was obvious when you worked with violent youth how much they were affected by violent programs. I personally recommend that art can be geared towards the beautiful instead of the dark side as well. Something magical and beautiful happens to a child that draws beautiful images. Nature and animals and birds fascinate the young and they will spend hours making a lovely drawing depicting their favorites.


If you want your child to enjoy art at home you have to make a space for it to happen in. Have a surface like a table or desk where the supplies are always out and they can return to finish a project or continue working on it. If you want them to become engrossed into the world of art you need to isolate the experience. Have a quiet place where there is no blaring noise and distractions. If there are siblings of varied ages, try to keep them apart where they will not become distracting or bother each other. Resist the habit of giving your opinion, negative or positive. There is no right or wrong way to do art. So you are only imposing your preferences on your child. Tell them not to ask you for praise or your opinions. Tell them you want them to draw for themselves not you. It is amazing how this frees them up to be more creative and find their own ways of expression. All skillful drawers learned how to copy ideas first, including Picasso and the Masters. Do not expect them to draw from their imagination. Let them look at pictures and photos and combine ideas together. That is what all realistic drawers do. Do not be tempted to draw on their work and help them. That is not conducive for growth and confidence. Artists do not like everything they do. It is unrealistic to like all attempts. Frustrations go away when this is accepted. There is no such thing as a mistake; you simply do some things that you do not like. You have the choice to change things you do not like. That is where problem solving comes in and it will carry over into other subjects. You rob a child of creative thinking and solving problems if you try to make them too comfortable or try to praise them into being o.k. with something that they do not like. All frustrations are eliminated with "So what, artists never like everything they do. Take a piece of scratch paper and see what ideas you can come up with to change it."


You are never too young or too old to enjoy the benefits of artistic expression. One of the nicest ways you can enjoy your children is to draw with them. It is my personal opinion that we are not born with artistic talent. It is like any other learned subject. The more you do it, the more confidence you gain and the more enjoyable it becomes. Do not hesitate to copy for practice, that is how we realistic drawers all learned. After a while you will find yourself adding creative ideas together. Art is a magical world. It is a world that opens up so many enjoyable hours and can fill a void in our busy and fast track lives.