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Teaching kids to express their feelings with adventures in art



Raven Juarez teaches art at an infant-toddler program in North Seattle, encouraging creativity, curiosity and empathy.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

Raven Juarez first developed an interest in art while drawing on a yellow legal pad under her mother’s desk. The child of two busy lawyers, Juarez had to find creative ways to entertain herself while her parents finished up work at the office.

“I used to make up stories and characters and draw them doing different things,” says Juarez. “I always felt that I had a closer relationship to myself through drawing than through spoken or written words.”

Today, Juarez is a professional artist and shares her love of creating with her early-education students at an infant-toddler program in North Seattle. Her teaching philosophy is grounded in the Reggio approach; cultivating a space for curiosity and development through play and art-making.

“Just like kids babble before they learn to talk, they also scribble before they develop their own pictorial language,” says Juarez. “Art is a language that can be used for something deeper and more important than just something that looks nice on a wall.”

Not only is Juarez a trained visual artist, she also completed a concentration in child psychology while earning a degree in liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College. She says kids can learn a lot about empathy by sharing stories and feelings through art with their peers.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

“I think art is a really great way of promoting social justice, and teaching kids to value cultures and communities that are different than the one they grew up in,” says Juarez.

A descendant of the Blackfeet tribe, Juarez says the cultural teachings of her native relatives inform her day-to-day interactions with her students. For example, she encourages them to think twice before intentionally squashing bugs when they’re playing outside: “I grew up with my grandparents telling me stories and teaching me to respect the earth and all its creatures.”

As an urban Native (meaning she was raised in Seattle rather than on a reservation), Juarez says she’s still exploring her connection to her native identity. “I wonder if a hallmark of being Native in today’s society is that you aren’t close enough no matter what you do or where you’re from,” she says. “With a culture that the government was actively trying to erase for hundreds of years, it’s understandable that the ties aren’t as strong as they could or should be.”

Exploring complex feelings in her personal work has inspired her to use art as a tool to guide her students through their own emotional experiences. She witnessed her efforts pay off when a student who became upset after his mother dropped him off at school turned to art to process his feelings.

“His mom left and his eyes were all full of tears and he said, ‘I would really like to paint,’” says Juarez. After some time alone with his brushes and paper, the boy produced a painting of his dad in a swimming pool.

“I realized that that must have been a memory of a time he felt very safe and secure and really special in his family. He totally calmed himself down and self-regulated by having that opportunity to channel his feelings from a more positive time into this negative moment,” says Juarez. “Then he was ready to begin his day.”

To get kids enthused about art, she recommends activities like attaching markers to child-size construction helmets and having the kids use their heads to draw lines on paper taped to the wall. Pouring paint down a ramp, placing a canvas under a swing and letting kids swipe at it on their bellies with a paintbrush, and adding a little clear glue to liquid watercolor are just a few of the fun art adventures Juarez says parents can try to engage kids in art-making.

“Art is where kids can turn their memories, their dreams, their ideas and their hopes into a very symbolic, almost poetic composition,” says Juarez. “They know exactly what it means, and if you’re lucky enough for them to want to explain it to you, it can be really moving.”

Beginning this summer, Juarez will offer private art lessons to local kids and adults. To learn more, visit ravenjuarez.com and follow her artworks on Instagram @raven_inthetrees.

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