Written by Joanne Robinson & Melissa Haddow

The launch this week of our children’s charity, the Little Art Stars, has been a spark of joy for us; it has started 2021 with a sense of our moving forward to keep making a difference in our community. The mission of the Little Art Stars is to provide structured art sessions, in a variety of settings, to vulnerable primary and secondary school children between the ages of 6 and 18. We raise self-esteem and develop improved motor skills, ultimately leading to a growth in confidence and increased positivity – allowing the students to engage/reengage with family and their own school community.

We have children working with us developing their art skills in our studios as part of our Scholarship Programme and children in our partner schools who come to our classes during lunch breaks. We know what a positive and lasting difference these classes make to the children we work with. We know because they tell us, their parents tell us and their teachers tell us. It is impossible to quantify ‘building self-esteem’, but when a child sits back in their seat halfway through an art class, looks at their work in awe and says ‘wow, I am an artist’; we know art is working it’s magic and that our structured art course is developing their skills, whilst our team build up their confidence.

Although the charity is new, the work the charity will be doing has been going on for a few years now, under the Little Art School Trust. The Little Art School Trust combined projects designed to use art to enhance life for people living with dementia and for vulnerable children in our community. The time was right for us in 2020 to begin the process of separating the two key demographics benefiting from our work. In November 2020 we launched the renamed and re-branded Little Art School Trust as our ‘Dementia Arts Trust’, focused entirely on using art to bring joy to people living with dementia. Months of work by the team culminated this week with the launch of the Little Art Stars, dedicated to using art to build self-esteem in children, reaching some of the most vulnerable young people in our community.

If we rewind seven years to our very first classes in a tiny art studio with the Little Art School, we both knew straight away that our classes were doing so much more than just teaching art skills. We put building self-esteem at the heart of everything we do right at the start and that ideal has grown as the company has grown and developed. When we first set up the Little Art School Trust in 2015, one of our talented young team approached us with an idea. She had been a young carer. From the age of 16 she had cared for her mother during her mother’s final years. She told us her story with a strength and maturity that left us both speechless. She said that one of the things that had got her through these years was her sketchbook. It was filled with drawings and quotes, words and images. Her art teacher had encouraged her to use the pages as an escape and a source of inspiration. Her idea was that we provide free art classes for Young Carers. She said that these classes could be a place where they focused on something that was outside their experience as young carers, a place where they could express themselves on paper, have fun and socialise but also develop their art skills. We got funding and started the classes. The amazing young carers who came to them loved the classes and we saw their confidence grow. At the end of the first year we asked them for their feedback about how we should move forward. It was their idea that they carried on but they didn’t want to be separated, they wanted to be integrated into the studio classes with everyone else. So that is what we did, and our Scholarship Programme was born.

As we developed the Scholarship programme we began reaching out to local schools. Headteachers contacted us to say that they had children who they really felt could benefit from our classes. There were a wide range of reasons why these children were selected, some were coping with grief, others with difficulties in the classroom or very low levels of self-confidence. We watched them blossom in our studios, watched their skills develop and their confidence grow. On a visit to our classes a representative from the STV Children’s Appeal, who have long been supporters of our work with vulnerable children, went around the class. By chance she stopped to chat to one of the children who had been on our Young Carers project and was now on the Scholarship Programme. She asked the child ‘do you like drawing?’ The response was emphatic: ‘Like it?! It’s all I do! You should see my bedroom! It is covered with my drawings!’ The STV lady looked at her work: ‘you’re very good aren’t you?’ she observed.  Our scholarship student didn’t miss a beat; ‘Yes, I am’ she said. That is how we measure self-esteem building; in the comments, in the self-belief, in watching children acknowledge their improving skills. That is what it is all about.

She asked the child ‘do you like drawing?’ The response was emphatic: ‘Like it?! It’s all I do! You should see my bedroom! It is covered with my drawings!’ The STV lady looked at her work: ‘you’re very good aren’t you?’ she observed.  Our scholarship student didn’t miss a beat; ‘Yes, I am’ she said.

There has been some beautiful serendipity around the development of the Little Art Stars. A chance meeting with the footballer Kris Boyd led to a wonderful partnership with the Kris Boyd Charity which has enabled us to reach more children. Along with our other funders and supporters, Kris’s charity enabled us to reach more children and to develop our ‘Art in a Suitcase’ Schools project. Newton and Braehead Primaries became the testing ground for whether we could take our course out to children and to teach children selected by the Headteacher in a small group away from our studio. The result of that four week trial was overwhelming. The kids loved it, the teachers saw leaps in self-confidence. The project was immediately rolled out. What began as a little idea grew very quickly and we saw the need to create a charity that could focus exclusively on growing these amazing projects.

The pandemic may have stopped our team going into the classrooms right now and temporarily shut our studios, but the Little Art Stars is still reaching out. This short video shows how we are teaching our classes remotely right now, but we can’t wait to get back in and to be with our amazing young artists.

We have a vision for our future. As we grow the Little Art School franchise across the UK we hope to gradually grow the work of the Little Art Stars. The franchisees who join us on our Little Art School adventure will, we feel, embrace our vision of using art to reach the most vulnerable members of our community. Alongside growing their businesses we hope that they will embrace our charitable aims too; increasing self-confidence in children, one drawing at a time.