The eyes of fifteen 3- to 4-year-olds were on John Taylor as he pranced about the classroom with two children at the Arthur Capper Day Care Center in Southeast. All were patiently waiting their turn to guide a balloon into a basket as Taylor, a local Washington dancer, urged them on.
To the children, many of whom come from single-parent, low-income families, Taylor is a friend who comes to school twice a week to play with them. To Taylor and other artists participating in the Wolf Trap Head Start Program, teaching preschool children about themselves and showing them that learning can be fun are among the most creative challenges of their careers.
"It's like these are my kids and my effect will be lasting," said Taylor, a dancer with the Columbia Dance Theatre of Columbia, Md. Taylor is one of 35 local artists--professional dancers, musicians, choreographers, storytellers, clowns and actors--who have brought educational programs to more than 5,000 children in about 100 Washington area day-care centers during the past year, including 1,400 in 35 District centers.
The 2-year-old Wolf Trap program, funded by a $150,000 Department of Health and Human Services grant, trains Head Start day-care center teachers in using arts in the classroom and helps parents reinforce the effort at home. It is in its first year in the District.
The program also includes field trips to Wolf Trap, a treat for many urban children who otherwise might not have an opportunity to see performances there. Every Wednesday, more than 60 preschool children travel to Vienna to work with dancers at Wolf Trap and perform in their own production.
"There's something about having a professional dancer or musician teach the children," said Ernestine Heastie, a teacher at the Malcolm X Elementary School's day-care center in the Congress Heights section of Anacostia. "Teachers can take a basic course in the arts, but they can't convey it as well as the artists."
"For many of the children who were quiet for whatever reason, the program has been able to bring out their positive personalities," said Joy Miller, a Head Start teacher at Arthur Capper.
The Wolf Trap classes sometimes seem like a play period, with artists crawling, skipping and hopping around the classroom. But administrators and teachers say the artists are aiding important learning.
"It's not just fun," said Beverly Langford Thomas, director of the District public schools' Head Start program. "It's better than fun. The program gives the children an opportunity to engage their whole bodies in learning."
Thomas said the program has had an impressive effect on the city's non-English speaking preschool children. "It is great for those who would just sit there not knowing what the devil was going on."
Some District parents also praise the benefits of the program. "The Wolf Trap program is vital because it helps children look forward to something," said Patricia Pendleton, who is the guardian of her grandchildren, Eashmon and Montique Baltimore, students at the Arthur Capper Day Care Center. "As a parent, I can't always single out their talents, but the artists can."
Pendleton said her grandchildren are now more interested in attending school. "Eashmon gets so excited that he's showing me all the time what they are doing with the Wolf Trap artists," she said. "I was fascinated to have a 4-year-old giving me some pointers."
Taylor, who estimates he has taught dance to 12,000 people during the past 20 years, believes the program is vital for the educational needs of preschool children.
"The children like to be presented with problems," he said. "They come here to be challenged."
Michele Valeri, a professional musician and drama specialist, agreed. "The most we can do is make the children feel good about themselves. If that's not working, it really doesn't matter," she said.
Valeri said one of her more rewarding moments came when a 3-year-old climbed on her lap and smiled for the first time since being badly burned in an accident a year earlier.
For Marc Spiegel, a storyteller who teaches at the Valley Green Center in Anacostia, the role of the artists is simple. "The children are getting a different perspective . . . . No matter what their home life is like, we give them a positive experience while they are here."
Artists in the program were careful at first not to interfere with the efforts or methods of the classroom teachers, McKelvey said. "You can't go in and say, 'The arts are going to save the world," she said. "We're trying to slowly and carefully build a trust with the teachers and administrators, and I think it's working."
"The Wolf Trap program is doing a wonderful job of adapting the arts for preschool children," agreed Helen Taylor, executive director of the National Child Day Care Associaton, a nonprofit agency that operates 21 centers in the city. "The artist sets a stage so every child can succeed and experience success."
The philosophy of the program is simple. "We show the children that they are artists," said program coordinator McKelvey. "We show them that they are talented human beings and that talent should be shared with others."