Volunteering as an Art Educator

102 year old woman painting!

This is my new friend, Bess…. a 102 year old woman in my art class for seniors… art is for everyone!

Opportunities abound for volunteering as an Art Educator! If you’ve got a little extra free time this summer, why not take advantage of this chance to share your expertise with others in your community?

This summer, I’m teaching Art classes for the elderly residents at a local retirement home…. a completely new experience for me! With new experiences come new challenges, and the chance to stretch, learn, and grow as an art educator!

When my friends and family heard I’d be teaching this art class for senior citizens, they all assumed it would be just like teaching kids, but they couldn’t have been more wrong!! It’s actually nothing like teaching kids! This got me thinking about how each volunteer experience brings it’s own unique set of challenges. As with any teaching situation, being prepared is half the battle. Try to anticipate what your specific challenges might be and consider how you’ll solve them before you begin. Here are some of the challenges you might encounter in a volunteer opportunity…

Physical Space Challenges (You may not be in a typical classroom!):

  • Are there enough chairs and tables? Do they need to be protected? (I use thin plastic tablecloths to cover tables…. they’re cheap and you can fold them up when you’re done and re-use them next time!)
  • If you’ll be working with wet media, is there water and a sink in the room or close by? (I borrow a cart from Maintenance to bring my water to the room in plastic containers. I have baby wipes available for cleaning hands and small messes after painting.)
  • Where will you demonstrate and/or place examples so that everyone can see them? (I use blue painter’s tape to hang my examples on the wall in the front of the room. This tape is very low-tack and removes easily without damaging surfaces.)

 Supply Challenges:

  • Will supplies be available for you on site or will you be reimbursed for what you need to purchase? Is there a budget to handle these expenses? Make sure you talk about this ahead of time! (I’ve been able to use some supplies they had left from previous teachers along with some of my own personal supplies that I have extra of, so we’ve only had to purchase minimal supplies so far.)
  • Can some supplies be shared? Will the seating arrangement allow for easy sharing of materials? (Lucky for me, this age group doesn’t mind sharing!)

Student Challenges (This was the “biggie” for me!!):

  • Will your students be of a similar age? (Mine range from 85 to 102!)
  • What challenges might be unique to this age group? You’ll need to consider this when choosing projects. (My students all have hand tremors and vision problems, so anything detailed is out of the question!)
  • What level of art experience will your students have? Are they at a similar level or do they range in ability? (My students range in ability from complete novice to former professional artists!)
  • What styles, subjects, and media might appeal to your students? (My group prefers realism to abstraction. Flowers, fish, leaves, and boats have been popular so far.)
  • What other unique challenges can you anticipate and how will you address them? (My biggest challenge is that my students are so critical of themselves because they can’t do the things they used to be able to do. Also, they can’t build on the skills I teach them, since they don’t remember from one time to the next!)

Volunteering in your area of giftedness is fun, rewarding, and a chance to grow…. plus, it can be more of a blessing to others than you even realize. Who can you share your love of art with this summer? Give it a try!

Are you volunteering anywhere this summer?

What unique challenges have you faced in your volunteer experiences?

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5 Responses to Volunteering as an Art Educator

  1. Rina July 12, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    Hi Cheryl
    How fabulous for your new senior art students and for you. You are a true inspiration!

  2. Aparna July 20, 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    Hi Cheryl,
    Very nice thing you are doing this summer. You are an inspiration. And if possible could you post more pictures of your new students artwork.

  3. Annette May 1, 2015 at 11:27 am #

    Thanks for all the wonderful ideas. Which art project would you specifically recommend for doing with the elderly.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge May 1, 2015 at 10:15 pm #

      There are so many challenges with the elderly, and they vary by person, so you really need to consider your students. Vision and hearing impairment, hand tremors, and muscle weakness are all common. I’ve found that most aren’t that interested in learning art history, and dementia prevents many from gaining new skills and then building on them. They mostly just want to be creative with the materials and walk away with something they feel good about. There is no shame in doing projects that seem more like crafts, too. A popular one is applying fabric to the bottom of glass plates with Mod Podge, which they can also give as gifts. Using watercolors over stencils can be a lot of fun and yield good results, too. Most will need help at various points so keep an eye out for that, too! Have fun talking and learning from them… they are a blessing!!