On Christmas Eve of 2007, I arrived in Los Angeles with my husband and our baby son. We had come from Sydney, Australia, with plans to spend six months in the United States. On behalf of St. Lucy’s School in Sydney, I was to spend my maternity leave researching schools and programs that served individuals with disabilities in the United States.
I could never have imagined how this undertaking would change our lives. I could never have known that it would lead me to my dream job: designing a program that would reflect everything I believe to be true about the best way to educate young children. Let me tell you how this came to be.
One of the first places I contacted after arriving in Los Angeles was United Cerebral Palsy (UCP). Earlier in the year, the UCP branch in New York City had arranged for me to teach dance and theatre workshops for adults with cerebral palsy. I loved the experience of working with adults—the group of students was fantastic and everyone was open, responsive to music, and willing to play within different theatre forms. I was hoping to work with adults again.
UCP of Los Angeles (UCPLA) offered a number of programs for adults and children, including ballet classes in a studio adapted to meet the sensory preferences of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Dr. Ron Cohen, the president and chief executive officer of UCPLA, invited me learn more about the organization’s programs for children. After having worked with children in Australia for 10 years, I was excited to see the work being done by others.
I had begun my career as an actress, primarily working in children’s theatre. I’ve always felt that the imagination and creativity of a child are wonderful things to share. I enjoy enchanted worlds and find it easy to inhabit them. Eventually I was drawn into theatre education and was amazed by the effect of theatre on all children. I was intrigued, in particular, by the responsiveness of children with disabilities. The purity and depth of their reactions were fascinating to me.
Eager to understand more about the influence of theatre on children with disabilities, I began to work in special day classes in Australia as a drama teacher, studied for my master’s degree, and ended up an artist-inresidence at a private school for children with special needs. Immersion in the creative arts played a central role in this school’s curriculum and in the foundation of its educational philosophy. I founded the school’s children’s theatre group and even secured it a venue at the Ensemble Theatre, one of Sydney’s major theatre companies.
But imagine my surprise when I discovered that in Los Angeles, the home of Hollywood, many children with ASD and other developmental disabilities have limited (if any) access to an in-depth arts education. To their credit, educators in the States seemed beautifully versed in structured teaching strategies and in applied behavior analysis. Individual Educational Plans (IEP) are clearly used more effectively in this country than I had ever observed in Australia. But where was the time to play, to make things and to have fun?
UCP offered me an opportunity to address this problem by allowing me to pilot a program that would give children in special day classes the same in-depth arts education as was received by their peers. My official involvement in this effort began in 2008, as I started to design the program. My approach was based on the conviction that true learning can only happen through experience. That is, to truly experience something you need to be exposed to it in a multitude of ways.
The creative arts offer endless learning experiences and opportunities for individuals to make connections. The curriculum I engineered met the California State Board of Education content standards for theatre and, in addition, used the arts to target development of social, behavioral and communication skills. In essence, it drew on individual strengths and placed each person at the center of his or her own learning. The curriculum was given the name “UCPlay”.
UCPlay was piloted at Walgrove Elementary School in Los Angeles. The selection of this school was done in collaboration with the autism support unit at Los Angeles Unified School District. The district representatives were supportive and enthusiastic and the teachers were interested and excited. We were off to a good start.
After eight weeks using drama and puppetry to teach the students about friendship, the class’s teacher began to notice many students generalizing these skills on the playground. The children spoke more and engaged more in drama than in any other group activity. As the UCPlay program’s first students, the children at Walgrove Elementary held a special place in our hearts. We decided to celebrate their engagement in our program by having them create the UCPlay logo.
It didn’t take long before word of UCPlay spread throughout the city. In no time at all we found ourselves in a number of urban schools, including Wilton Place Elementary in Koreatown. At this school I met an extraordinary young man with autism whose most powerful method of communication is illustration. We helped him to use this gift as a tool for learning across all subject areas.
Tom Whaley, Head of Theatre and Performing Arts for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, brought UCPlay to the students of his district and provided them with evidence that the creative arts can give people a voice, an opportunity for collaborative learning, and a place to enjoy interaction with others. For many special needs students, schooling is dictated by following the student’s IEP, as guided by a therapist. But UCPlay is unique in that it allows a new approach to learning. As one student shared, “UCPlay is the first drama program that takes my needs into consideration without talking down to me. I am always a teenage boy, not a baby, to them.”
Testimonials like this speak of the importance of the arts in any student’s ability to learn. Time and again, kids greet each session with excitement. The classroom teacher feels encouraged by the sound of an entire class’s laughter, as well as by the decision of students who typically withdraw from social contact to engage.
UCPlay means the world to me, largely because of the students and wonderful people who have helped UCPLA not only continue the program, but—even in the middle of huge funding cuts—expand it! Several teachers have made large personal donations to help fuel our efforts. Parents, with the help of organizations like The Santa Monica Education Foundation and the Malibu Special Education Foundation, have raised thousands of dollars to help UCP fund the UCPlay program for their kids.
Even the clothing outlet Anthroplogie donated ornaments to be used in puppetry (after carefully removing any glass from every item). Students from the community have selflessly volunteered their their time and their talents to support the program and, in the process, have learned about the experiences of individuals who perceive the world differently than themselves.
Through UCPlay, we have come together to give students a place to be heard. We continue to play an active role in student education and to help reveal, to themselves and to others, who these students can be. Being in their presence in one of my greatest joys.
by Olivia Karaolis