Why Our High Schools Need the Arts

“A must-read for anyone who cares about dropout prevention, Dr. Hoffmann Davis’ latest book is laid out like a map of the developing teenage psyche, leading the reader to a clear understanding of why learning in the arts is critical to adolescent development and engagement in school.”

Kristen Paglia, Executive Director, Education and Programs at P.S. ARTS


It’s my great pleasure to be joined today by my graduate school mentor and founder of the Arts in Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Jessica Hoffmann Davis. For anyone lucky enough to know Jessica in person, she’s a dynamic individual with a talent for breathing life into difficult topics through her easy manner and accessible conversation points.

In her most recent book, Why Our High Schools Need the Arts (Teachers College Press, 2011), Jessica argues that the arts “can give high school students a reason to attend and to stay in school.” If you know anything about the growing number of high school dropouts, this is a solution worth considering.

This book is a must-read for school administrators and education policy makers, but it’s also a call-to-action for concerned parents who hold the direction of a child’s future in their hands.


Why our high schools need the arts

Thanks for joining me today! Your book is full of descriptive narratives that capture the importance an arts-rich high school education. Can you share a favorite story from the book that exemplifies this point?

The story of a student coming out in a visual arts class is a great example of how the arts enable students to give shape to emotions and ideas that may be otherwise difficult to express. A fledgling visual art teacher had a student who was hiding her drawing all through the class. It was the drawing of two young women kissing. Finally, the student “meekly asked” if the teacher would allow her to continue the drawing. He was completely taken aback and replied, “I’m really not sure why you’re asking this question. It’s two people making out. They’re kissing. It’s a beautiful moment. So you want to know what I think? You need to punch up your shading around the jawlines if you want more drama. Those shadows should be directing the viewer’s eyes to the areas of the picture YOU want them to go to. Does that answer your question?” And with a big toothy grin, she just said, “Yes.”

As the parent of two small children who will one day become teenagers (eek!), I got a lot out of this book, particularly how to frame my passion for arts education for school administrators who have the power to make change. How do you hope parents, teachers, administrators, or policy makers will use this book?

I have been working the last several years on putting into words the things that make the arts essential to our children’s education AND (and this is important) what makes arts learning different from what students learn in their other classes. In this new book, as I did in an earlier one called Why Our Schools Need the Arts (2008), I delineate concrete aspects of the arts that give way to particular learning outcomes.. I hope this framework will help arts education advocates launch focussed and effective arguments. The arts are not frills. They are necessary in our children’s development and learning. For adolescents who are struggling with the difficult passage from childhood to adulthood, this is poignantly true. The arts give these students a reason to come to school and therefore, as I say in the book, can help reduce the drop out rate in our struggling high schools.

jessica hoffman davis and her grandson

Jessica watches her grandson paint

You’re the parent of THREE creative kids (now grown up). Can you tell us a little bit about how you raised your own children and what their high school art experiences were like?

I started early and introduced my sons to many hands on arts experiences and trips to art museums before they entered first grade. Although only one of them, my youngest, grew up to be a working artist, I do believe all three have a comfort with and love for art and a strong sense of the aesthetic. They also all had meaningful (if not extensive) arts encounters in high school. My oldest son, Josh eagerly performed in high school theatrical productions and I believe those experiences informed his love for public speaking—his debating in college and law school, and the presentations he does now as a lawyer, teacher, and talk radio guy. My middle son Alex, now an investment advisor, was very engaged in high school sports, but he loved the ceramics he got to do and he shows his little boy the pieces we have around the house with affection and I think still some real pride. My youngest, Benjamin, has always adored the arts and especially theater. He went to a high school where he had the chance to engage deeply in the visual arts and in theater and I think his role as Tevya (Fiddler on the Roof) senior year helped launch his career as an actor and master class teacher in L.A.

What books or websites are inspiring you right now?

One of the things that interests me at this stage of life is getting to know better the young person that I was. Perhaps by more than coincidence, since I’ve been studying high school aged students, I’ve been revisiting some of the books that I loved as a teen ager. I’ve been reading the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tender is the Night, and the Far Side of Paradise) which I adored at that age and it’s been a very dear experience. As much as I enjoy these works in a different way now, I vividly remember falling in love with the writer, feeling I was the person for whom Fitzgerald wrote these books. I’ve also been excited and inspired by the work of some of my former graduate students. For example, Deb Putnoi has a great new book that’s just out called The Drawing Mind: Silence Your Inner Critic and Release Your Creative Spirit and Caleb Neelon’s The History of American Graffiti is wonderful as is Jim Daichendt’s Artist-Teacher: A Philosophy for Creating and Teaching

High School Jessica plays guitar with friends

You conclude the book with the idea that if you ask any high school graduate what they remember from high school they will “tell you of the time they played Captain Hook in the school musical or the day their poem was read aloud in assembly…” A couple of my own strongest memories are of playing flute for the musical Guys and Dolls and painting in the art studio long after class was over…so this definitely rings true for me. When you think back to your own high school memories, what has stuck with you?

I remember profoundly the production of a play that I’d written in high school through which I learned a great deal about a friend of mine whose role (which of course I played) was at the center of the story. It was thrilling to hear the words I’d written spoken by the other students who acted in my play and exciting to have created an artistic whole with so many parts. I haven’t done anything like it since except that two summers ago here in New Hampshire where I live, I wrote and directed a play about a group of women going back for their fiftieth high school reunion and the excitement I felt as the audience laughed at the lines I’d written brought me back to that moment of theatrical excitement so many years ago.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Tinkerlab is wonderful. Congratulations. I’m delighted to be featured here. Thank you Rachelle. Also, if anyone would like to be in touch with me around my writing and/or any of the issues I address, please contact me via my website: jessicahoffmanndavis.com

Thank you so much, Jessica! It’s such an honor to share you and your work with my readers and I hope you’ll come back and talk with us again soon.


One lucky reader will be randomly chosen to receive a copy of Why Our High Schools Need the Arts. To enter, please leave a comment with your own fondest High School memory/ies by Sunday, May 6 at 9 pm PST. Prize recipient must have a U.S. address. Good luck! A winner has been selected. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Outdoor Body Painting

My kids are generally happiest outside, which I imagine is the same for most kids. The air is heating up and we’re looking for more opportunities to step outside, and I always love it when I land on ideas for combining my love for the outdoors and art (the perfect combination if you ask me).

The other day my 3 year old wanted to paint a big, smooth river rock that mysteriously turned up in our driveway, so I filled an old ice cube tray with non-toxic, AP certfied, washable liquid watercolors, and placed it outside with a few watercolor brushes. N got in a bathing suit and little R was happy in a diaper cover.

Go at it, kids! (This is where I step back and enjoy the sunshine and a cup of coffee).

rock painting

I had dinner with a friend about a month ago, and when the topic of my blog came up she said, “I love your blog, but you’re so messy!” It’s true, I’m not afraid of a mess, and for the most part my kids aren’t either.

Messes aren’t something I go in search of. I’m actually pretty wary of them because it generally means more cleaning work for me, and I really do hate cleaning. But mess-making and kids often go hand-in-hand. Because it’s important for children to experience feelings of flow with their creative energy, it helps to have some strategies for managing the mess.

body painting

Tips for Outdoor Painting with Kids

  1. Choose a warm day when everyone is happy to be half naked outdoors.
  2. Use washable paints. We used liquid watercolors, but tempera paint works great too. You could also add a little bit of dish soap to each color to help expedite the clean up. You don’t want to yell “stop” every three minutes, and the washable paint will let you breathe easy.
  3. Offer them something to paint: Rocks, logs, grass, and sidewalks are washable or can withstand a layer or two of paint. An old table? A wooden apple crate? Cardboard boxes? Extend the painting experience by offering different substrates.
  4. Hose off, sit in a wading pool, or have easy access to a tub or shower.

Although this began as a rock-painting activity, my 19 month old discovered that her skin was an empty canvas.

body painting

When they were done, I carried my youngest inside and plopped the two of them in the tub for a quick rinse off.

More Outdoor Painting Ideas

6 Ways to Take Art Outdoors

DIY Crushed Chalk Painting, The Chocolate Muffin Tree

Outdoor Water Painting: All you need is a tub of water and a brush for this clean painting activity

Painting a Pop-up Tent, Filth Wizardry

DIY Outdoor Easel Painting (and a clever idea for storing paint pots), Filth Wizardry

Brilliant idea for setting up an outdoor studio with Spray Painting Canvas Patio Walls, made from painter’s drop cloth, The Artful Parent

Where (and what) do your kids like to paint? How are you getting outdoors this summer?


I’m excited to share that I’m partnering with GoGo squeeZ as a Playbassador, which means that I have more excuses to get my kids outdoors for imaginative and unexpected outdoor play. GoGo squeeZ makes yummy applesauce for healthy, easy, on-the-go snacking, and I look forward to sharing some fun outdoor posts over the next few months that celebrate the spirit of this playful and easy-to-transport snack.


Check out GoGo squeeZ for more fun activities and tasty treats to take outdoors. My kids love every flavor of their applesauce, and it’s the easiest thing to take along with us to the park, hikes, beach, or backyard. It’s gluten-free and Kosher, and I’m impressed that they partner with TerraCycle to recycle their packaging into things like bags, pencil cases, and playgrounds. If you save your packaging, you can send it to TerraCycle free-of-charge!

Interested in more on the fun new GoGo squeeZ packaging? Get a first look here.

All ideas expressed in this post are my own.

Word Drawing Game

Do your kids like to draw? Do you ever play drawing games?

The other day my kids and I were cleaning out the garage. Well, really it was me while they loitered, moved things around, and made a lot of noise.

My 3-year old found an old, but never-before-opened game of a Cranium. She adores opening new packages and ran into the house for a pair of scissors.

Once the box was open and she was done exploring its contents, she asked if we could play. I love how open-minded and full of enthusiasm children can be.

If you look at the packaging I think it recommends this game for age 18 and older, so it wasn’t exactly age-appropriate, but we played a version that she enjoyed and I think it could work in some capacity for kids of all ages.

drawing games preschool

I searched through the deck of cards for something that she had some chance of drawing (and understanding). Which meant “no” on Devil’s Food Cake, Card Shark, and Wicked Witch of the East, and “yes” on Mermaids, Bubble Bath, and Potty (short for Potty Training).

My daughter can’t read yet, so this is how we played…

I pulled out a card and read it to her while she looked on (and maybe picked up on how letters form words). Then she drew it, to the best of her ability.

This part was the most fun for me, and in some cases frustrating for her. In the picture above, she was challenged to draw a mermaid and asked me if she could look at a picture of one. I pulled up a drawing of Disney’s Little Mermaid, she gave it her best effort, exclaimed that it looked nothing like a mermaid, and this exercise ended with, “it’s your turn.”

Then I drew one (a potty) while she guessed what I was drawing. Despite years of drawing classes, my drawing barely looked like a potty and it took her forever to make a correct guess. I think it helped her to see me struggle, showing that we can’t always create the things that our brains envision. At least I hope that’s what happened.

Back to her…she got to draw bubble bath…

drawing game preschool

Again, I was so curious to see how she would tackle this challenge. She chose a blue crayon….

drawing game preschool

Drew some water along the left side of the paper and bubbles on the right side. Ah, a bubble bath! We played a total of about 5 drawings before she was done.

If I were to do this again, I’d make my own cards with words of things that are in her drawing vocabulary: flowers, people, rockets, and rainbows. And I’d include a few things just outside of her drawing ability: house, bike, tree, bunny.

But venus flytraps and Hawaiian shirts may have to wait another 15 years.

More drawing games

Art Dice: A fun tool for creating randomly-created art. Also good for teaching shapes, colors, lines, etc.

Slide Drawing: A roll of paper and some crayons turn a slide into more than a downhill ride

Drawing Shadows: Play with sidewalk chalk on a sunny morning or afternoon

Organic Shape Monsters: You just need some string, a drawing tool, and a big imagination.

Hole inspiration: Draw around holes cut into a sheet of paper (The Artful Parent)

Challenge Drawings: Cut out shapes of paper and see what you can turn them into (The Artful Parent)

Pick and Draw Art Game: A deck of drawing cards reviewed by The Chocolate Muffin Tree

A simple way to learn how to Draw Circles from Lessons Learnt Journal

Stuck in a waiting room? Save this fun waiting room drawing idea (Mama Smiles)

Do you have a favorite drawing game or post about a drawing game?

Sensory Activity: Wheat Berries

Could your child spend hours sifting flour or scooping sand? Sensory activities like these can fully absorb the minds of young children as they test the limits of materials and build imaginary worlds through pouring, filling, and building.

This sensory activity is so easy, it doesn’t require a lot of materials, and the process of exploring tactile materials through hands-on play is good for growing brains.

But why wheat berries? Like rice or sand, wheat berries are fun to scoop, but the larger, rounder size has a different tactile feeling than these other materials. I’m not advocating for one over the other, but presenting this as an option that came on like gangbusters with my kids.

And you can grow or cook this nifty grain after the playing is done…scroll down for more on that.

wheat berry sensory activity


  • Wheat Berries*
  • Large Container
  • Small toys, bowls, and scoopers

* I found our wheat berries in the bulk bin aisle of Whole Foods, and used a full bag for this project. You can find wheat berries in most bulk bin aisles and online. I spotted this organic 25 Lb Bag of Hard Red Wheat Berries on Amazon and there are plenty of other choices there.

sensory activity

I poured the wheat berries into the tub and placed a few plastic eggs, a couple homemade paper funnels, a couple bowls, a scooper, and an egg carton next to the tub. My kids dropped what they wanted inside and started playing.

sensory activity

They came up with all sorts of ideas that surprised me, but perhaps the biggest surprise was watching them play alongside one another (well, across the table, actually) in total harmony.

The other surprise: This activity went on for days. Each night I would clean everything up, put the lid on the tab, and tuck it away under a cabinet. And the next day my toddler would ask me to pull it out.

sensory activity

The only mistake I made was setting this up over a shaggy carpet. It was such a mess, but nothing the vacuum couldn’t take care of. On a nice day, this would be fun outside, but I would caution you against setting this up over any dirt or land that you wouldn’t want wheat grass shooting up in.

They also brought dollhouse furniture and little action figures over to the tub, where they ran them through various adventures. My three-year old built a paper canoe (seen above), to fill with berries and take Strawberry Shortcake on rides down the river.

I loved watching how inventive they were with this simple grain as the backdrop for their creativity.

sensory activity

And suddenly the tub doesn’t seem so big anymore! When they exhausted all of their play options, walking right in the wheat berries, and eventually sitting in them became a game in itself.

More Wheat Berry Fun

wheat berry

Wheat Berry Gardening (above), Tinkerlab

Wheat Berry Salad with Dried Cherries and Walnuts, Ellie Krieger on Food Network

Wheatberry Salad with Bell Pepper and Red Onion, Barefoot Contessa on Food Network

A nice explanation on why wheat berries are good to eat, and a recipe for Greek Wheat Berry Salad, A Life Less Sweet blog

Have your kids played with this fun sensory grain?

Making Paper with Kids

Making paper with kids is a rewarding experience, and today I’m going to share how you can do it.

Making paper with kids - so easy!Have you ever made your own paper?  It requires some patience and preparation, but it’s not tricky and the process is worth exploring with children or anyone who’s curious about how to make paper.

After my toddler created a sensory bin full of paper and water, I saw an opportunity to upcycle that mushy paper pulp into some new-to-us paper. We had most of the materials handy, but had to make a trip to the hardware store to buy a small window screen (affiliate)

The hardware store happens to be across the street from an ice cream parlor, so my kids were okay with that.

Two ice cream cones later, we returned home, put my youngest down for a nap, and got busy with some paper-making…

Let’s start with the materials (full printable recipe at the end of this post):

How to make paper with kids | TinkerLab

Supplies: Make Your Own Paper

  • Window Screen. This sliding window screen (affiliate) is economical and reusable.
  • Two Plastic Wash Tubs (affiliate) or similar
  • Washcloth/rag/burp cloth/large piece of felt
  • Water
  • Torn paper from newspaper, tissue paper, magazines, etc. Be sure that it’s staple and tape-free
  • Blender (affiliate). <<This is my favorite economical workhorse machine. 
  • Small seeds (optional)

Steps: Homemade Paper with Kids

To get into the spirit and expand our knowledge of paper making, we watched a Mr. Roger’s episode about paper making. If you like this video you’ll also love learning about how crayons are made. Alternatively, here’s the video-free step-by-step (all from PBS Kids).

how to make paper with kids

Tear the paper into tiny strips, about 2″.

how to make paper with kids

Place your window screen on top of one of the plastic tubs

how to make paper with kids

Add paper to the blender, cover it with water, and run the blender on a low speed.

Since you will squeeze all the water out of the paper pulp, you can’t really have too much water, so if the blender doesn’t move easily, add more water.

Make paper with a blenderRun the blender a little bit faster until you get the paper mixture into a nice, smooth pulp. Ours is kind of chunky because my kids wanted it that way. Yours can be smoother.

how to make paper

My toddler wanted to play with the pulp right away. She squeezed it, scooped it, and carried bowls full of pulp into the living room. It’s so fun and a rich sensory experience, so leave time for this if you have a little one.

how to make paper with kids

Next, spread the pulp thinly and uniformly across the screen and then layer a cloth diaper or towel on top to absorb the extra water, while also pushing the water through the screen into the tub. Get the kids involved.

how to make paper

Place one hand firmly on top of the cloth while you flip the screen over onto a table or countertop that can handle water.

how to make paper

Remove the screen and put the cloth with paper pulp in a spot where it can dry, undisturbed, for about a day. The thicker the paper, the longer it will take to dry.

Make paper with a screen

Later the next day, this is what it looked like. Not your typical paper, but beautiful nonetheless. We haven’t done much with it yet, but I’m thinking some Sharpies or watercolor paint might be a good fit. And with the seeds embedded in the pulp, we could cut these up and give them away to friends, with the invitation to plant them in their gardens.

how to make paper


How to Make Paper with Kids
Recipe type: Sensory, DIY
Making paper teaches children how one of our most ubiquitous materials -- PAPER -- is made, and it's also a fun sensory project for kids of all ages.
  • Screen (we bought a $10 sliding window screen)
  • Large Tub
  • Washcloth/rag/burp cloth/large piece of felt
  • Water
  • Torn paper from newspaper, tissue paper, magazines, etc. Be sure that it's staple and tape-free
  • Blender
  • Small seeds (optional)
  1. Shred the paper up into little pieces (roughly 2" square)
  2. Add paper to the blender, cover it with water, and run the blender on a low speed. Since you'll squeeze all the water out of the paper pulp, you can't really have too much water, so if the blender doesn't move easily, add more water.
  3. Run the blender a little bit faster until you get the paper mixture into a nice, smooth pulp. Add more water if your pulp is still chunky.
  4. Spread the pulp in a thin and uniform layer across the screen
  5. Cover this with a rag or cloth diape to absorb the extra water, while also pushing the water through the screen into the tub.
  6. Place one hand firmly on top of the cloth and then flip the screen over onto a work surface.
  7. Removed the screen and put the cloth plus paper pulp in a spot where it could dry, undisturbed, for about a day. The thicker the paper, the longer it will take to dry.


Easy step for making paper with kidsMore Handmade Paper Inspiration

Allison of No Time for Flashcards used and Immersion Blender to make Recycled Paper Hearts.

Jen of PaintCutPaste made Handmade Blooming Paper.

Rebekah of The Golden Gleam made Recycled Paper Ornaments for Christmas, but you could easily make these with ornaments of just about any shape.

Kristi of Creative Connections for Kids made Wildflower Paper Ornaments (using the same screen as us!).

Melitza of Play Activities made Earth Day Seeded Paper.