Toledo Art Teacher Kristen Kowalski’s students arrive in her classroom, full of the usual wiggles and distractions of typically energetic youngsters. But as Ms. Kowalski passes out a stack of Apple iPads, something magical happens. The students fall silent and their fingers begin moving across the small digital screens in small and large strokes, creating a dazzling array of collages, paintings and even three-dimensional clay pots. Their eyes are fixed on the images that are taking shape in front of them with a concentration that isn’t even interrupted when an outside visitor asks what they are making.
“My main goal was the sensory issue,” Ms. Kowalski said, watching her students work. “So many times, students have issues touching chalk, touching clay, the texture of things. This removed that whole element but is able to replicate those same experience and allows them to interact with an artistic medium without having the meltdowns or the negative reactions.”
She first became aware of the artistic potential of iPads after seeing English artist David Hockney’s work published in The New Yorker magazine. Then Fox News reporter John Brandon published a story in 2011, suggesting the iPad was a “miracle device” for autism.
“He quoted the experts as saying the iPad minimized the symptoms of the disorder, helping kids deal with life’s sensory overload.,” Ms. Kowalski said. “One parent called the iPad a miracle device because it allowed her three-year-old to play games, communicate and make puzzles.”
Ms. Kowalski applied for a grant from the Toledo Rotary Club. The grant money allowed her to purchase 12 iPads, multiple adapters, covers and applications. She chose two smaller classrooms — one with six students from grades 1 to 3 and a second classroom of nine students in grades 6 to 8.
On a recent day in her classroom, students were hard at work with an application called “Face iMake.” By touching certain areas, they could create faces using everything from vegetables and household items to shapes and colors. Leo explained that he made a mouth using a collection of buttons and used hot peppers to make the eyebrows. “His name is Mr. Pepper and that’s why he’s called that because he’s always mad,” Leo said with a smile on his own face.
Demetrius was creating an alien, “a 43-year-old alien with apples and oranges,” he added more specifically.
Across the table, Scott was bringing to life the face of a tiger, using dice for its nose and tomatoes for the eyes.
Although the art tables are covered with newspapers, there is no messy residue from this artwork. Without any cleanup, the students switch to another application called “iCreate Pottery.” Through the technical magic on the screens, they begin to throw pots on a wheel, pulling out shapes with their fingertips. After they get the desired shape, the students add color and “fire” their piece in an imaginary kiln.
Once the piece is completed, the students place their work for sale in an imaginary gallery and it is priced and sold.
“I’m going to be a potter,” Onyai announced, admiring her finished piece.
In addition to the ease of creating these pieces, Ms. Kowalski said she could never afford to buy all the materials needed for these projects. The apps allow students to create multiple projects instead of one or two.
“They don’t get bogged down in making it perfect,” she added. “It is about the experimentation of the mediums, removing the frustration aspect of creating something perfect.”
When the students did eventually create a pot using real clay, they were not intimidated by the motor skills needed or put off by the sensory issues.
“Demetrius never wanted to touch the clay before,” she said. “But after the pottery application, he was prepared for it. He said ‘Oh, this feels good!’”
The other iPad applications allowed her to teach art history to both classes and engage the students in verbally expressing themselves about the abstract art they saw. Ms. Kowalski chronicled her students’ successes in a presentation she gave to the National Art Education Association, an organization of7,000 art teachers throughout the country.
“Teachers from all over the country were telling me ‘You’ve given me the proof I need to go to my board and get these devices,’ ” she said.
In addition to learning different artistic skills and art history, Ms. Kowalski said an additional payoff is the way the iPads allow the students a time to relax.
“It is a time in their day that is calming,” she said. “It is well worth it.”