When the governments of Europe closed schools and issued stay-at-home orders in March, I knew I couldn’t be the only parent thinking what now? The challenge of balancing life as a full-time children’s carer, educator and entertainer alongside working from home has become one of life’s great conundrums in recent weeks. It has not been a simple problem to solve.
Fortunately, as lockdowns were being swiftly introduced across the continent, many people were actively thinking of ways that they could do their bit to help. Realising that people would be sat at home for months on end searching for things to do, children’s author and illustrator Rob Biddulph decided that he would host a free online art class. Twice a week, Rob uploads draw-along videos with step-by-step instructions on how to create some of his best loved characters. These half-hour classes have brought excitement and joy into the lives of cooped up kids – they have become so popular, in fact, that ‘Draw with Rob’ is now pushing to break the world record for largest online art lesson. For parents, they have been nothing short of a sanity-saving miracle.
They have also had a huge social impact. In distant and difficult times, initiatives like Rob’s have quickly become something more than a bit of fun for children – and a slice of respite for us parents. They have developed into a unique way of making people of all ages feel a sense of connection to something much greater than their own four walls.
Life under lockdown
This is important, as for the past two months Europeans have faced unprecedented controls on one of their most fundamental freedoms – free movement. It is estimated that school closures have affected over 1.5 billion learners in 165 different countries during the pandemic, according to figures released by UNESCO. That is approximately nine out of every 10 students globally. The earliest that UK schools could reopen their gates for limited numbers of students is the beginning of June – in Italy and Portugal, they will not do so before the autumn.
What this means is that our current abnormal life looks set to go on in much the same way for the foreseeable future. While lockdown measures continue to be a vital tool in our global response to the pandemic, the fact remains that they have negative effects as well as positive ones. This is particularly true for young people. A study from Save the Children says almost a quarter of children are currently dealing with feelings of anxiety due to current social restrictions, with almost two thirds reporting boredom and feelings of isolation. A report from UNICEF highlights how young people who are cut off from channels of support – both formal and informal – at a time when they need them most are at greater risk of lasting psychological effects.
Building community through creativity
While news of shuttered schools may well have delighted kids, the prospect of long-term damage to their mental health and well-being as a result of lockdown measures is growing increasingly clear. It’s vital for everyone’s mental well-being to have an outlet and maintain a sense of routine during times of stress and difficulty, and especially important for the ongoing social and physical development children. At a time of curtailed social interaction and playtime with friends, art represents a powerful tool for providing this sense of stability.
The benefits of art on young people’s development are well-documented. From the progression of brain function and fine motor skills to the channelling of emotional expression, art is fundamental for improving the lives and ambitions of the global youth. It can boost children’s confidence and helps to cultivate their emotional intelligence, while instilling and enhancing the kind of problem-solving skills that will underpin development throughout adolescence and into adulthood. By offering a safe platform for exploring creative and expressive possibilities, art can help children to better understand the nature of boundaries and risk-taking, as well as how to respond productively to their mistakes.
The huge popularity of children’s online art classes demonstrates their broader social function during socially distant circumstances. Regular classes have reintroduced a sense of routine back into children’s lives that had otherwise been lost without school. They have also gone some way towards replacing crucial shared learning experiences that would ordinarily occur inside the classroom. Rather than encumbering creativity, technology has been fundamental in allowing children to receive inspiration and guidance in their creative endeavours. It has also given them a platform to share their creations with the world. Sharing art with online communities, responding to the work of others and seeing it alongside their own has helped to bridge divisions between isolated minds, fostering a sense of belonging at a time when they feel most alone.
Achieving something greater
So long as the pandemic continues to disrupt children’s lives, there is an ongoing imperative to try and replace their established social structures and routines with new things that offer the same sense of cohesion. We also owe it to ourselves – as parents, business owners and employees – to set the examples we want them to follow. Whether a child away from the classroom or an employee away from the office, it’s easy for people to feel disconnected when they become detached from the wider collective. We can soon forget the importance of supporting colleagues and maintaining team morale when we spend so much of our time apart.
Artists like Rob recognise the potential for shared online experiences to unite people in remote locations, as well as the range of benefits that creativity can bring to people’s mental wellbeing and mindfulness. On Thursday 21 May, the Art World Records project that Seb Blanc, Rob and I have launched is aiming to break the world record for largest online art lesson. By spending thirty minutes of time to pursue one of life’s simple pleasures from their own home, the project gives people of all ages the power to build a connection to something far beyond themselves. It is also a platform for businesses to pledge financial support through Founders Pledge for COVID-19 relief efforts while bringing teams together at a time of crisis.
With a little help from a lot of people around the world, we’re hopeful that young and old alike will recognise that while they may be isolated, they are not alone. If we can break a world record, they will even be entwined with history. That’s not just an impressive feat in uncertain times – it’s reason alone to never underestimate the unifying potential of art and creativity.
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