Unlike a Marvel or DC storyline, Jean Loo’s young charges aren’t blessed or burdened with superhuman agility, telekinesis or psychometry. But they all possess an adroit power — one which lies within all of us — creativity.
“We see creativity as a superpower that helps children build confidence in their perspectives. In art, there’s no right or wrong way of expression and if you mirror that to life, it’s a great way to start conversations with children about diversity, acceptance and inclusion,” says Loo, 35, co-founder of Superhero Me, an inclusive arts movement that empowers kids from less privileged and special needs communities with creative confidence.
Its community of creatives and art facilitators help their young charges harness the transformative power of creativity, while using the arts as a social mixer that fosters inclusion, empathy, and resilience among these children with differing social backgrounds and abilities.
If children grow up in a diverse classroom, they pick up empathy, compassion, skills to communicate and negotiate, and learn to accommodate and understand friends from all walks of life and ability.
Beginning with a costume crafting workshop for preschoolers in Lengkok Bahru in 2014, Superhero Me has now engaged more than 20,000 people through its myriad of activities. Among them, arts training and workshops that pair children from mainstream and special education (SPED) schools together, as well as artist-child collaborations.
But with the Circuit Breaker, Superhero Me, like everyone else, has gone digital. It’s Holiyay at Home workshop series supports families and special needs children right through the May school holidays with programmes hosted online thrice weekly.
“In this time of anxiety and uncertainty, I think the arts can provide all children with an outlet of expression and be a source of security and comfort. In particular for those with special needs, whether it’s listening to a violinist perform a piece over Zoom, or taking part in a virtual arts workshop with other children, the arts is a bridge to connect them through a common channel of expression”, says Loo, a recipient of the Singapore Youth Award 2018.
What is creative confidence and how is it so transformative?
The way I see it, creativity helps children reframe their own life struggles or challenge traditional definitions of their abilities. Being part of a movement has definitely helped the kids with us know that they are part of something bigger than themselves, and they have a community from all walks of life that they can turn to. We’ve seen friendships blossom between kids of different abilities, and our children are slowly becoming “ability-blind” — because the team models the idea that everyone is valued no matter what home you live in or if you don’t really speak.
Is the arts a universal language in itself too?
It is a bridge of potential at Superhero Me. We use the arts as a means to an end: To enable social interaction between typical children and those with special needs. The approach we adopt — the inclusive arts — is really about how creatives see the children they work with as equals, not beneficiaries. Through the inclusive arts, you learn to consider a diverse audience, think about user experience and advocate with a clear message. We have a core community of children whom we develop artistically as junior inclusion ambassadors and many times we see ourselves translating their ideas for everyone else to access.
Givers often say they receive even more in return. What do you get out of the Superhero Me experience?
I am very humbled by the energy of our children and team. We’re constantly challenged and constrained, but it makes us creative that way. It’s been a privilege to grow with our community of children and captains [volunteers trained in the inclusive arts approach] and do such fun, creative work together. The beautiful thing is, we’ve all gone away and come back to Superhero Me, bringing in new insights and perspectives to our work in inclusion. We still push ourselves to live out this spirit of adventure that we always talk about to the kids. It makes inclusion my story, as much as it is theirs.
What are some of your fondest memories?
We have a community of children at Lengkok Bahru, a rental flat area, whom we have worked with since they were 6 years old. They’re our “pioneer heroes” and will turn 12 this year (PSLE!). From preschoolers who lacked confidence, they, to us, are some of the most brilliant kids. It’s been pretty surreal that they have continued to want to be a part of this movement. Seeing them mentor and care for younger friends with needs has been extremely encouraging. Another example would be working with children from Kindle Garden, Singapore’s first inclusive preschool. They have autism and struggled as children to communicate, but it’s been amazing watching them blossom and benefit from an inclusive early childhood setting. They are doing well in primary school now. I think, on the whole, every endeavour has its own special moments. Relationships are what we treasure the most, especially when we get to see the children grow over the years.
Why is inclusive education in childhood so important?
Inclusion benefits everyone — In today’s changing world, we can’t afford to raise children who only know how to interact with those like themselves or live in a bubble. If children grow up in a diverse classroom, they pick up empathy, compassion, skills to communicate and negotiate, and more importantly, they learn to accommodate and understand friends from all walks of life and abilities. I believe it is key to strengthening our social fabric as a nation.
How can arts practitioners or the general public learn more and step up to help?
If you would like to help us, please reach out to families with children with special needs in your midst. A smile or wave goes a long way in letting caregivers know they are accepted in your community.
If you would like to find out more about how children with disabilities are schooled, go check out volunteer programmes with schools like Rainbow Centre, AWWA or Autism Resource Centre. Otherwise, Superhero Me has also released two children’s publications.
Please support us, all proceeds go back to our work in the inclusive arts.