Art and Early Childhood Development: Free Arts NYC’s PACT program



Early childhood education programs have a host of benefits — from positive impact on an individual child’s psychosocial and physical development, to macro impacts on public policy and community development (1). Bottom line: supporting the very young, means supporting communities, neighborhoods and beyond. It’s a great investment. One of the keys to successful programs is the quality of family involvement: how are parents/guardians engaged? how are they involved as teachers and learners? how do parents leverage each other as networks and stakeholders?


What is PACT Early Years?

One program that considers these questions is Free Arts NYC’s Parent and Children Together with Art (PACT) Early Years program. PACT is an eight-week art program for families.  Working as design teams, families use art-making to enhance communication and problem-solving skills. With a 1:2 volunteer to family ratio, Teaching Artists and trained volunteers encourage positive family communication and sustained teamwork.

PACT Early Years (PACT-EY) is a variation of PACT, designed for families with children between the ages of 3 and 5.  This program maintains the core PACT model and goals, but offers alternative session structures and art experiences better suited for the needs of early childhood aged children, including the development of visual and verbal literacy and enhancement of fine motor skills and coordination.  PACT-EY is also aimed at facilitating children’s transition into the classroom by providing opportunities for substantial interaction and collaboration between guardians and Teaching Artists.

Since the program’s launch in 2012, PACT-EY has been a huge success. In 2013-2014, 95% of parents said they were able to set high expectations for their children by helping them “reframe problems into opportunities.” And 100% of parents say they use skills learned in the program in their day-to-day lives. At an East Harlem program, a father tells us: “programs like this one need to be in all schools. It brings families together in art. It helps me get to know other parents too.”  Organizationally, the Early Years track also allowed Free Arts to offer programming to a new age group and fulfill its commitment to a ‘cradle-to-college’ approach to youth development.  More importantly, it met a need that Free Arts’ community partners (schools, social service agencies, etc.) and parents had expressed for years: we need more engaging Out-of-School Time programming for little ones!

What makes PACT Early Years successful?

1. A rigorous, engaging curricula focused on play: Curricula is not only developmentally appropriate but culturally responsive. When developing art activities for an early education program, the basics still apply: age-appropriate tasks, movement breaks, and multiple opportunities for understanding (art) concepts. Similarly, content should provide families with moments for self-reflection To best do this, provide families with artworks from a variety of cultures– preferably those that reflect their own identities and experiences. In PACT we see this inspire a high-level of engagement and cultural pride (which support resilience).

Also, curriculum writers should identify high quality aesthetic education practices that translate to working with 3-6 year olds (they exist!). Taking time to notice details and patterns, one tenant of aesthetic education, correlates strongly with the visual and verbal literacy development key in this life stage. The specific way this unfolds might look different than it would in a group for children 5+; for example, rather than  describing a painting verbally, a 4 year old might use their body to identify and mirror shapes they see in an image.   Young children should be challenged to learn, grow and develop through creative, artistic – and still rigorous – play.

2. Involve the family, but focus on the parent: The Harvard Family Research Project asserts, “[parents need real opportunities to interact with [early education] providers.” (2) For PACT-EY this means active parent participation is at the center of programming; in other words, parents are artists and makers too! “PACT helps us to be creative as parents. It’s usually my kids who do these types of activities,” says a Red Hook parent. By engaging them in the same creative processes as their children, parents experience first-hand the benefits of creative expression and are more invested in the process.

In addition, families are co-creators of a “Group Agreement” and are as responsible as staff for up-holding it. This also applies to leadership roles within the program– once parents are acclimated with the PACT Early Years routine, they are regularly invited to lead sections of the session. Whether leading discussion of art images or guiding the sharing session, parents see the program space as theirs. Through quality interactions with teaching artists, and other parents, social capital is developed.

3. Excellent Facilitation = Excellent Programming: Teaching Artists and volunteers must be equipped to connect and collaborate with parents/guardians, not just children. PACT-EY paid and volunteer staff receive an initial 6 hour training in aesthetic education, behavior/classroom management, and positive youth development – and then every program cycle thereafter they attend an additional 3-hour training so they can continue developing their skills.

4. FEEDBACK! FEEDBACK! FEEDBACK! If you want to run a high-quality parent-program, ASK parents what a high-quality program looks like to them; ASK them what they hope to get out of it and how you can provide support; ASK them what they would add or change — and then do it! Regularly soliciting feedback, both formally and informally, ensures that parents’ needs and interests are met, which in turn builds strong, trusting partnerships. Recognizing parents as experts on the needs of their families is crucial.

In PACT-EY, we solicit informal feedback by holding sharing circles at the end of each session during which parents reflect on their art process and consider what they are still working towards for themselves and with their children. This allows Teaching Artists to tailor the following sessions to address these areas. More formally, we collect self-evaluations from all participants, in addition to a parent-progress survey from their respective Teaching Artist. This allows us to cross-reference growth (and challenge) patterns in a group–  and use the data to measure program impact and make changes to the program itself.

Recently, in a PACT group in Inwood, families were working on superhero photo-collages. One mom said, “I don’t have any superpowers. I am too tired!” Transforming moments like this into opportunities for families to recognize and support each other’s strengths is what PACT is all about. It’s a process that requires constant evaluation, research, and management. It’s also the process that led that mom’s son to reply, “Yes you do [have superpowers]. You are really strong!” And that’s what makes it worth the work.

Photo FreeArtsPhoto Free Arts 2










(Photos courtesy of



(1) Heckman, James J., “Invest in the very young…” published by Ounce of Prevention Fund and the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy Studies (2000).

(2) Weiss, Heather and Margaret Caspe, and M. Elena Lopez., “Family Involvement in Early Childhood Education.” Harvard Family Research Project (2006).

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