Learning Through Play
A partnership with The Strong National Museum of Play gives Arts for Children students valuable — and fun — career preparation.
Amidst playful settings filled with fantastical creatures, students from SUNY Brockport’s Interdisciplinary Arts for Children Program (IAC) are doing some of their most critical learning and career preparation.
For the past 15 years, Brockport students have taken part in multiple events each year at The Strong National Museum of Play, routinely ranked among the top 10 children’s museums nationwide. Most frequently, students participate in The Strong’s annual Monster Bash in the fall and its Royal Ball in the spring, which fulfill service hours required as part of their capstone experience.
IAC students earn a bachelor’s degree with a specialty in one of six areas: theatre, music, dance, dance studies, literary arts, or visual art. It is the only program of its kind in the country.
The Strong’s Monster Bash, most recently held October 28–29, features Halloween-themed games and activities led by costumed creatures. As children dig through a sand graveyard or find a path out of the woods, they build trust and communication skills with the mummies, witches, and skeletons guiding them.
The dancing skeleton this year was senior Audrey Miller, who enjoyed encouraging the children to explore at the sand table, work together, and ask questions.
“It helped me to think about how to talk to children, and how to prompt them to take part in the activity, follow directions, and have fun,” she said.
The Royal Ball, which will be held February 10–11, is part Renaissance fair, part fairytale storybook. Again in costume — this time of a more regal nature — Brockport students lead children in activities such as dancing, a pretend feast, and visits with a fairy godmother and the Queen of Play.
Brockport’s recurring participation in these events opened the door to further partnership. IAC students have twice put on original plays at the museum and will perform a new work there in 2018.
“This programming is valuable because it gives students a sense firsthand of if this is the kind of work they want to do,” said Juanita Suarez, associate professor of dance and program director of IAC. “It allows them to see the professional side of what it means to run a business that focuses on serving children.”
Tom Lake ’11 credits IAC for introducing him to his career path. He says he uses what he learned at Brockport every day in his current work as the drama integration teacher at Renaissance Academy Charter School of the Arts.
“I never felt like I fit into traditional art teaching contexts until I discovered these new ways of teaching art that IAC focuses on,” Lake said.
The program prides itself on helping students find their niche within these multifaceted disciplines, and getting into character at The Strong is a popular part of that discovery process. Suarez says students often return to volunteer for the events again.
Lake has continued to be involved since his graduation. The spring play will be the second he has directed for the program. Brockport students will collaborate with Lake’s third- through fifth-grade students at Renaissance Academy in creating the characters and improvising scenes. The resulting work will be performed at The Strong in May.
Lake is grateful that The Strong has “fostered a real connection between audiences and IAC’s student-created work for children.”
Likewise, Suarez feels the ongoing partnership is crucial to introducing the Brockport students to the population they aim to serve.
“It allows our students to learn how to engage with the public in a less intimidating fashion,” said Suarez. “They learn what it’s like to be around a lot of children, a wide range of children from different cultures.”
The Monster Bash event this past October welcomed nearly 4,000 children across two days. That number indicates to Suarez that the events are meeting a need in offering the kinds of creative arts immersion parents want for their children.
“It’s a population that is somewhat overlooked,” she said. “Not everyone can send their child to a studio to study these things — nor should they have to.”