The Orange Art Project: Learning through Art during COVID-19


ATLANTA, Georgia — COVID-19 has seen the world shift in an unprecedented direction, affecting millions of people worldwide. Children are expected to be one of the most at-risk groups for the pandemic’s lifelong consequences, particularly regarding their health, safety and education. Programs such as The Orange Art Project, a South African initiative teaching creative skills to children in foster care, are vital in mitigating these harmful consequences.

Education and COVID-19

Education has suffered significantly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. UNICEF reports that more than one billion children are at risk of falling behind in school. This loss of education has the potential to last generations and undo years of progress. Developing countries like South Africa are disproportionately affected by this burden as the predominant alternative to attending school is online learning, which is only accessible to one in every four children worldwide. Many households do not have access to the technology required for this online school system.

In a policy brief about education during the COVID-19 crisis, the United Nations emphasized the importance of reevaluating the education system to fill the learning gap. The brief outlines several ways to accelerate learning, including the goal to “strengthen the articulation and flexibility across levels and types of education and training.” Prioritizing art’s influence on education may be one of the ways to improve learning worldwide.

The Influence of Art in Education

There are various studies linking creativity to improved school performance. Louise Slaughter, co-chairwoman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, noted in a letter to The New York Times that students who have been actively engaging in creative arts such as art, music and dance, have noticeably higher math and verbal SAT scores.

A University of Winchester psychology professor, Paul T. Sowden, further highlighted the importance of art in children’s educational development. He stated that arts education helps children “master complex skills,” focus on tasks for longer periods of time, become better collaborators and ask more questions, which are all skills that are essential for the learning environment.

Mariale Hardiman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, also researched how art and creativity in school affected children’s retention of the material. Hardiman conducted a study in which children were taught the same curriculum in the same amount of time, but only one group was taught using art and creativity. For example, one group might have been asked to rote learn a set of facts, while the other was taught a song containing the same facts. Hardiman found that the children who did not learn through artistic methods retained less information. Additionally, those who benefitted the most were the children considered to be “lower performers” before the study.

The Orange Art Project

Jill Trappler is a South African artist with more than 40 years of experience. During this time, she has facilitated The Orange Art Group, an interactive space for diverse local and international artists to “drop-in” and share their experiences. The Orange Art Project is an extension of this collective that seeks to share the joy of art with underprivileged children living in foster homes around Cape Town, South Africa.

The project began as a response to a shortage of art supplies in a network of foster homes run by a local organization called Home from Home. Members of Trappler’s group donated money and supplies for the foster children to engage in art activities while schools were closed. This quickly developed into an educational opportunity to develop children’s creativity during weekly art sessions with working artists.

The pilot project originally included five of the 36 houses but grew to nine in July. There are currently eight Orange Art Group artists who meet with each home once a week via Whatsapp or in-person and work with the children on painting, drawing and collages. According to Trappler’s blog, the project’s goals are to help the foster mothers occupy their children amid the pandemic when other options are limited and support the children’s creative and educational needs.

Arts Education Amid the Pandemic

One of Home from Home’s foster mothers told The Borgen Project that the children are encouraged to draw something every day to improve their skills and consistently reap the benefits of art and creativity. She went on to say that the foster children in her care enjoy spending time with their assigned artist and love working on their art projects.

In August 2020, The Orange Art Project was able to secure funding from the National Arts Council until January 2021. The budget accommodates the artists’ time and resources, the children’s resources and mobile data for sessions that are held through Whatsapp. However, it has become apparent that more funding is needed for additional resources and travel expenses for those artists conducting in-person sessions. Trappler also hopes to obtain funding to continue the project through 2021.

Art is often neglected in education and development. In South Africa, only 5% of schools offer art as a subject after the ninth grade. However, research continues to show how art and creativity benefit learning. The Orange Art Project is not simply providing children with an enjoyable activity to pass the time but building a capacity for them to increase their learning so as to minimize the disruption COVID-19 has taken on their education.

– Emma Maytham
Photo: Flick


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