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Special Needs Require Specialized Teaching

Hey! You guys better watch it! When you pull that stick out, the rug will fall apart!” A small boy, who had just threaded wide silk ribbon through wooden dowels to weave a large mat, was laughing at the Special Tour Docents who wheeled him along the floor of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. He was one of a group of multiply handicapped children exploring color and weaving. For the past ten years, Special Tour Docents at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center have invented ways to give art experiences to children who cannot walk, talk, use their hands, see or hear, or who have developmental disabilities. Inspired by such educators of the past as Pestalozzi, Froebel, and Rudolph Steiner, docents proceed from the known to the unknown, mixing visual experience with physical action.

It works like this. After the bus arrives and docents greet the teacher, they immediately begin the personal contact special tours require.

A name tag states that the little girl in the first wheel chair is Susan. “Hello Susan. What a pretty bluejacket you’re wearing! Is blue your favorite color?” Susan turns her head away and shrinks back into the safety of her chair.

Just then a small boy runs by and a docent grabs for his hand. “What’s your favorite color, Jaime?” she asks.

“Red, red, red!” he shrieks, and continues racing toward the staircase.

After corralling him and the rest of the group, the Special Tour Docents lead the class to a quiet gallery. Here, lots of colored fabrics are spread out on a drop cloth in front of a large colorful painting. Colorado Springs Docents collect remnants of every size, texture, and color as props for tours.

Do children with special needs respond to our activities from the start? Seldom. “Susan, what color would you like?” asks the docent. Shy Susan still turns her head away. “Would you like to be Susan Blue today?” No answer. “Let’s feel this pretty blue velvet. It’s the same color as your eyes.” The docent wheels the little girl to a mirror propped against the gallery wall. With blue velvet draped over her head, Susan peeks at herself in the mirror. “See your pretty blue eyes? How about putting a scarf around your shoulders? What other color would you like?” Susan points to a bit of rose colored satin. After it is placed on her shoulders, she looks at herself and smiles. “Let’s take your picture!,” the docent offers. The Polaroid snap shot will go back with Susan to her school.

Meanwhile, Jaime snatches up a big piece of red flannel and waves it around like a bull fighter. “Come with me,” says a vigorous docent. “We’ll go to another gallery where you can find this red color in many pictures.” Jaime is a hyperactive youngster who needs his energy directed productively. It takes almost a one-to-one ratio of docents to children on tours of this kind. Sometimes the teacher’s aide or parents help, but the Special Tour Docents don’t count on it.

Now that Susan has grown comfortable, the docent wheels her around the gallery. “Let’s find your blue color in a painting.” Susan begins to look closely at each painting, searching for the color. The gallery comes to life with children searching for colors.

Eventually, everyone is grouped in front of a big landscape painting. “After you find your blue in this picture, Susan, put the velvet down here on the drop cloth and we’ll use it to help make a collage on the floor. Remember the word ‘collage.’ It means a picture made from all kinds of materials.”

Susan hesitates, then drops her blue cloth about where the sky would be. “Good. Now, who has some tree colors?” Jaime rushes up with his red flannel and throws it down. “Thank you, Jaime; this picture has lots of red leaves. Put your red cloth on the floor under Susan’s blue sky. Billy, do you see some of your white in this painting?” He nods his head and tosses the cloth from his wheelchair onto the collage. “Point to where you think it should go, Billy. Here? Or, down there? What other colors do you see? Jenny, how about you?” Jenny smiles when she hears her name and spreads her green corduroy where the green trees are. “Now everybody move over here so we can take your picture.” Polaroid film costs a dollar a picture, so we try to have as many children in one picture as possible.

To show the children what is meant by color harmony, the Special Tour Docents use a Peter Hurd painting of a young, blue-eyed cowboy wearing a light tan hat and a pink, lavender, and blue plaid shirt. His eyes are the blue of the sky and the artist repeats the color of his shirt in the hills and valley of the background.

“Look around you,” says the docent, “and see if you can find someone with the same color eyes and hair as the boy in this picture. Do Billy’s eyes match? What about Edward’s hair? Just right. And Penny has a pink dress. Does her dress match the cowboy’s cheeks? It does! Now, who has something tan to match the hat? Does anyone have a lavender sweater?” With luck, most of the colors can be found in the class. If not, the colors can be found in the remnant bag.

“Now,” says the docent, “you will be the artist. Pablo can wear this green sombrero, and you can figure out what colors in Pablo’s face and hair and eyes should be repeated in a new picture. What color are Pablo’s eyes?”

“Brown,” says Jimmy.

“Okay, put some brown on the floor.”

“His hair is black and so are his sneakers,” comes another voice.

“Look at his shirt. What color is it?”

“Yellow!” shouts the class.

“Jenny, can you find a yellow to match Pablo’s shirt?”

Before long, a whole new set of colors are assembled on the floor. Then, the docent might say, “Now everybody decide how you would use these colors in a picture of Pablo. Remember, Peter Hurd used pinks and blues and lavender for his mountains.” Hints are usually necessary. “You’ll want to use the same colors in the background that Pablo is wearing, the way Peter Hurd did in his painting. What color should the mountains be? What color could the trees be? What color might the house be? Is it a gray rainy day or a bright blue-sky day?”

Special Tour Docents know that a successful tour finds just the right way to trigger the children’s interest and creativity. Moving from the known to the unknown, having a plan and patience, being prepared with alternatives, touring with a nearly one-to-one ratio of docents-to-students, using props, and working in an institution committed to serving the audience combine to make visits by severely disabled children to the art center or museum a successful and rewarding one for all.

Pestalozzi (1746-1827) stressed that instruction should proceed from the familiar to the new, incorporate the performance of the concrete arts and the experience of actual emotional responses, and be paced to follow the gradual unfolding of the child’s development.

Froebel (1782-1852) was founder of the Kindergarten. His methods were based on the premise that man is essentially dynamic and creative rather than merely receptive. His belief in self activity and play in child education resulted in the introduction of a series of toys or learning apparatus, known as gifts, devised to simulate learning through well directed play accompanied by songs and music.

Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925) built his first Goetheanum in 1913 at Dornach, near Basel, Switzerland. He characterized this as a school of spiritual science. The Waldorf School movement derived from his experiments at the Goetheanum. Other projects that have grown out of Steiner’s work include schools for disabled children. (Excerpted from the Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition.)


 Peggy Marshall has served as a Docent for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center since 1950. A founder of both the Retarded Children ‘s Association of Colorado Springs and Cheyenne Village, a residential training center for retarded adults. Ms. Marshall is Co-Chair of the Fine Arts Center’s tactile gallery where visitors are permitted to reach art objects and know them through touch.

Marshall, Peggy. “Special Needs Require Specialized Teaching,” The Docent Educator 1.4 (Summer 1992): 8-10.

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