Watercolor Fountain Painting: A Visual Art Lesson Plan for Students with Disabilities

Created by Darren Thompson

Creative Arts Specialist Darren Thompson teaches art in a fully inclusive setting, which includes many students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). His goal is to provide a rich environment that supports creative exploration for all students. Many of the art experiences he designs that are especially effective for children with ASD involve motorized devices that he creates or adapts from common objects. Here, Thompson offers a visual art lesson plan utilizing a battery-operated tabletop fountain.

Preschool, ages 3 – 6 years


  • Battery-operated tabletop fountain
  • Semi-moist watercolor set (such as Crayola or Prang)
  • Heavy white paper


  • Become acquainted with watercolor as a medium for self-expression.
  • Demonstrate that the marks a person makes can represent a thought or a feeling.
  • Provide an opportunity for social interaction.


  • Fill fountains with water and turn them on.
  • Demonstrate the sequence of first dipping the brush in the water, then in the paint, and then touching it to the paper.
  • Tell the children they can paint whatever they choose.
  • Express interest in and remark upon what you see in a child’s piece and ask him or her to share thoughts or feelings. For example: “I see you’re using red and you’ve made some straight lines and some circles. Tell me about it!”
  • Ask if you can share their painting and words with their friends.
  • If the answer is no, respect the child’s choice. If the answer is yes, then make an impromptu announcement to the group. For example: “Hey everyone, Fatima has painted a picture of her mom and her ” Show the painting to the class. As you hand it back, speak loud enough for the class to hear you say, “Thank you, Fatima!”
  • Make your way around the room, interacting with each child in this manner.

A tabletop water fountain immediately engages children. They are eager to explore it and are delighted that they are allowed to do so. The sound and feel of water has a regulating effect for everyone, but is especially effective for individuals with sensory processing delays, including those sometimes associated with ASD. Children should be allowed to paint with their fingers if they choose.

I recommend using relatively small-sized paper, as it requires finer movements of the hands, which helps to calm and focus the children. I use 5” x 8” blank index cards.

Children always welcome positive acknowledgment from a caring adult. When they are asked to tell you about their work it sends the message that what they are doing, thinking, and feeling is important. It also gives them practice in reflecting on their actions and recognizing that actions have causes. When you share their work with the class, you are helping each child feel connected to their peer group. You are also demonstrating that every child has something to offer.


This lesson plan aligns with the following Early Learning Content Standards in the state of Ohio:

  • Use imagination and creativity to interact with objects and materials.
  • Express individuality, life experiences, and what he/she knows and is able to do through a variety of media,
  • Express interest in and show appreciation for the creative work of others.
  • Demonstrate understanding that symbols carry meaning and use symbols to represent thinking.
  • With modeling and support, explore the properties of objects and materials (e.g., solids and liquids).
  • Use language to communicate in a variety of ways with others, to share observations, ideas and experiences; problem-solve, reason, predict, and seek new information.


A headshot photo of Darren Thompson, man with light hair and a beard, wearing glasses.Darren Thompson is a Creative Arts Specialist employed by Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities in Columbus, Ohio. He teaches art at The Early Childhood Education and Family Center in a fully inclusive setting. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art, a Master’s Degree in Education, and is a licensed Early Childhood Educator and Intervention Specialist. He is a frequent guest speaker at The Ohio State University College of Social Work and College of Arts and Sciences. Thompson presented at the 2016 VSA Ohio Arts and Autism Conference and is on the planning committee for the 2017 convening.

5 Tips for Teaching Theater to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Acting from the Outside In

By James Lekatz

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) present challenges for a typical theater classroom: possible deficits in communication, sensory processing, social skills, and fine motor control. However, students with ASD can also have wonderful strengths for a theater classroom: honesty, attention to detail, and creative thinking. Approaching a theater class from a physical theater pedagogy allows students with ASD to focus on their strengths, build confidence, and develop social skills. Here are 5 tips to start acting from the outside in.

  1. Adopt routine and structure. Begin classes with the same routine: conduct a verbal check-in with each student so everyone has a chance to share what’s going on in their lives; follow with a centering warm-up exercise (introduce a set of skills that students can improve on over time); then a student-led warm-up exercise (this improvisational process incorporates a repeated structure and lets students take ownership of their class); and finish by going over the schedule of the day. Always end class with the same structure: review what was completed and go over what will be accomplished in the next class. Routines and structures help foster a safe and welcoming atmosphere for the students.
  1. Create an atmosphere of playfulness. When playfulness is explored and expressed, the room is allowed to relax. Students are willing to take creative risks and make big choices. Usually, students don’t have a fear of failing or of doing the “wrong thing” when there is an atmosphere of playfulness. Often times, starting an improvisational situation, scene work, or other exercise by doing it the “wrong way” allows all students a chance to fully engage in what they are doing. Nobody can fail, that is the purpose! From this place of playful “failure,” students are able to fully participate and laugh at themselves and each other in a supportive way. Being playful does not mean being disrespectful, chaotic, or unfocused. Playfulness is structured, focused, and allows space for creative freedom, supported peer interaction, and a desire to try again. It also invites full body movement and a physical response with the voice.
  1. Use body, movement, and gesture. Typical theater is based on psychological realism, or memory recall of emotion—acting from the inside out. This is an absolutely valid way of creating theater; however, if we take a physical route to create theater, using physical representations of characters, spatial relationships, and whole body gestures—acting from the outside in—students are able to dive deeper into their creativity. They no longer rely on representing feelings; they can be active and actually show, not just tell, what they are feeling.
  1. Remain open to possibilities. Give students the choice as to who or what they want to represent on stage. The protection of a character lets students’ self-expression evolve in a way that is not possible if they are acting as themselves. It is the job, and joyful challenge, of the teacher to figure out how to put characters together into a story. When it comes to pre-existing scene work, let the students cast the scene as well. This not only sets in motion an interest in the work they are about to begin, but it gives them an ownership of the process.
  1. Ask, “What did you notice?” Leave time for observations and discussions. This allows the teacher to recap what has been accomplished, but also offers time for the students to synthesize what they have experienced. It gives ample opportunity for students who have minimal language skills to express their observations. Prompting the students with the question, “What did you notice?” takes away the personal opinion of a student’s work; the “I liked it when…” is thrown away. An actual critique occurs as students specifically noticed a particular moment. The follow up questions are, “How did it make you feel?” or “What did it remind you of?” These questions help the students bridge the gap from the classroom to their personal lives.


A picture of the author holding a colorful string instrument behind his head.

James Lekatz

James Lekatz is an Education Associate and Arts Access Specialist at Stages Theatre Company. He continues to be instrumental in leading the charge for Stages Theatre Company’s outreach and access efforts, and brokering new partnerships with community organizations. He is also a resident teaching artist in many Twin Cities school districts and is the lead teacher of CAST (Creative Accepting Sensory-friendly Theatre), a program for students ages 7-17 with ASD.  

Five Tips on Exploring Transition Theatrically with Students with Disabilities

By Lisa Golda

As any actor will tell you, theatrical practice is a very powerful tool for self-transformation. The very act of embodying different roles in a cooperative context provides socially reinforced opportunities to realize the dreams and conquer the obstacles of one’s inner landscape in the physical world. Traits of characters played can, if invited, linger in the actor’s psyche long after the curtain comes down. Scripted character interactions allow opportunities to both share and assume perspectives in rehearsal for more spontaneous real-life conversations. Obstacles conquered onstage prove less problematic offstage. Here are five graduated ways to explore and empathize with the inevitable obstacles and unknowns of transition with students, teachers, and families entering life after high school routine.

1. Start small and safe. Actors simultaneously utilize literature, movement, speech, interaction, self-assertion, and physical tableau, but those elements are easy to tackle one by one while still offering effective opportunities for rehearsal of real-life skills. It’s important to build a sense of comfort and mastery into graduated assumption of the role one wishes to assume after transition from high school to adult life. It is also important to reassure parent and teacher participants that they can indeed apply theater to their own lives despite any potential lack of acting experience. Ask students and teachers to choose words they associate with transition, such as “birth” or “sunrise,” then invite them to create silent statues or ten-second tableaus of these concepts with their bodies, with a partner. This is a very non-threatening, failure-proof, and beautiful way to embody change and begin considering all that transition implies.

2. Embody and overcome metaphorical obstacles to transition before exploring interpersonal scenarios. Theatrical work can be very transformative, but most non-actors need to build trust and safety with each other before jumping into the emotional deep end of their imagined realities and relationships. Group participation in both being and navigating an obstacle course—for instance, cooperatively and safely guiding a blindfolded participant through an improvised classroom maze with vocal directions—can give the guided actor the experience of dependence, frustration, and trust. This activity also leads the guiders to an understanding of their own tendencies in helping situations: What tolerance do they have for watching their students and children struggle with obstacles? What can a student learn about their parents’ challenges by helping them navigate in the metaphorical dark?

3. Improvise an applicable interaction with secret agendas. Give two participants transition-applicable, opposing unknown agendas to explore in improvised dyad in front of the group. For instance: two teachers are partnered. One teacher is given the objective of staying out after group home curfew to see their only friend—it’s life or death stakes. Another teacher is told that they must not acknowledge the “resident’s” risky rule-breaking desire, but only repeat: You may not break curfew. In embodying this and other authentically applicable transition scenarios, participants can gain a better sense of what their students, parents, and teachers are experiencing, as well as rehearse positive potential responses and outcomes.

4. Collect and incorporate narratives to feature in a transitional showcase performance. It has been said that good acting is merely being present and listening to your scene partner with 100% focus. Foster the art of listening by having students, parents, and teachers gather narratives from each other about aspects of transition and its real, imagined, feared, and desired outcomes. Condense the narrative material into poetry, song lyrics, or simple monologues addressing the participants’ inner transitional landscapes. Then perform the original material in theatrical format. Embodying this personal source material further enriches the conscious processing and experiencing of transition.

5. Prepare and perform a relevant text, play, or book excerpt pertaining to the issue at hand. Our participants have now moved from simple frozen tableau to metaphorical obstacle mastery to perspective taking to experience sharing to the actual art of acting; that is to say, embodying an experience that is not literally one’s own, but which becomes one’s own through the art of acting. Having practiced presenting material and situations that are truly our own through gathered personal narrative, our final objective as actors is to take the perspectives of others alien to ourselves by rehearsing and performing plays. Students who choose to perform roles that may seem impossible to parents and teachers may end up embodying positive aspects of those characters in their actual lives, or successfully avoiding them, if negative.



A headshot of Lisa Golda

Lisa Golda

Lisa Golda spent seven years teaching for Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education and Chicago Opera Theatre. She is currently the Business Manager at Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee, WI. Her resume includes professional acting, singing, music directing, voice teaching, and arts integration consulting for orgs including Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Ravinia Festival, and the Chicago Symphony. www.lisagolda.com


Lisa Golda and Michelle Parker-Katz will present “Embodying Transition: A Theatrical Approach to the Transition IEP” at the 2016 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education conference on Monday, August 1, 2016.

Five Tips for Teaching Music to Students with Disabilities

By Cecilia Smith

Plato has been credited with quote, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything. “As a jazz artist, I have been fascinated by the universal application of jazz improvisation concepts to a variety of learning styles and preferences, including those of students with disabilities. Music, indeed, speaks to everyone. The following tips will work well with students with disabilities, and were developed particularly for students with autism spectrum disorders.

  1. Observe individuals making body movements to music. If their movements are in time to the rhythm of music, this could translate into instinctive time-keeping abilities that can be fine-tuned.
  1. Egg shakers are viable alternatives to maracas. Tiny beads inside of the egg structure are quite pleasing to the ear even if shaken randomly. Egg shakers can create an environment of sound essence and pleasing rhythm simultaneously.
  1. Darbukas drums are held under one arm while one hand plays. A steady rhythm of simple 1-2-3-4 can be easily maintained on the Darbukas drum.
  1. Use popular music for teaching students to count beats per minute (BPM) and practice consistent rhythm/time. Some music suggestions are: Katy Perry’s “Firework” — 126 BPM; Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” — 160 BPM; Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” — 120 BPM; Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be” — 120 BPM; and Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” — 84 BPM.
  1. Coordinate dramatic activities with music that can serve as a tool for enhancing interpretation and appreciation of all kinds of music genres. For example, use a large parachute and coordinate music to the following: up and down movements; shaking with hard and soft motions; or add 5 to 15 large balloons in intervals, while lifting and shaking the parachute as the music intensifies. This is an extremely engaging experience! Music suggestions for this activity include: Pat Metheny’s “Cathedral in a Suite Case;” Angélique Kidjo’s “Lonlon;” Jill Scott’s “Golden”; Mary Mary’s “Get Up”; Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome”; Mussorgsky’s “The Great Gate of Kiev;” Copeland’s “Hoe Down;” and Miles Davis’ “Jean Pierre,” “High Speed Chase.”


Picture of Cecilia Smith

Cecilia Smith

Cecilia Smith is a teaching artist for Marquis Studios in New York. She will be co-presenting a VSA webinar with Maya Singh on Tuesday, May 24, 2016, entitled Music & Math in Motion: A New Learning Approach to Counting in 4/4 Time and Tempo Concepts for Students on the Autism Spectrum.

Five Tips for Professional Learning Content: Preparing Arts Teachers to Work with Students with Disabilities

By Dr. Sharon Malley

Many members of the VSA Network provide professional learning opportunities for arts teachers and teaching artists working with students with disabilities. Here are 5 suggested content areas to consider when developing curricula for teachers.

  1. Knowledge of disability from the inside out. When teaching about disability, addressing medical terminology and conditions facilitates a general understanding of characteristics of particular disabilities. To increase understanding, create opportunities for learners to gain knowledge about the experience of disability through panel discussions, videos, and literature sensitive to and representing the perspectives of people with disabilities in your region or country.
  1. Knowledge of your country’s laws and practices pertaining to educating students with disabilities. Essential to working with students with disabilities in schools is an understanding of the laws governing their education. Areas to cover include the rights of students with disabilities, how students are identified as having a disability, the supports that students are provided based on their disabilities, and the expectations of teachers working with them. If your country’s laws are generally stated, it is likely there are particular practices and expectations within given school systems. Knowledge of these practices will increase teacher competence.
  1. Knowledge of the roles of other stakeholders, such as special educators and other professionals, administrators, and parents. When working with students with disabilities, teachers are not working in isolation. There are many individuals central to the student’s education and life. Arts teachers can benefit from understanding the roles of the various stakeholders and how best to communicate and collaborate with them.
  1. How to design lessons responsive to differences. Essential to teaching is the ability to design curricula and lesson plans that provide opportunities for all students to learn. Arts teachers need facility in using tools for developing plans, such as the Universal Design for Learning framework, and appropriate accommodations for individualized student engagement and learning.
  1. How to maximize the creative potential of students with significant disabilities. Arts teachers working with students with significant disabilities might have particular concerns that they are not “reaching” their students. Knowledge of communication supports used by students, evidence-based practices, and techniques for targeting instruction through formative (on-going) evaluations can increase arts teachers’ effectiveness in working with students with significant disabilities.


A headshot of Dr. Sharon Malley

Dr. Sharon Malley

Dr. Sharon Malley is an educator, researcher, and national consultant with over 30 years of professional endeavors supporting people with intellectual disabilities and autism, in arts and special education. She is currently co-editing the Handbook of Arts Education and Special Education, to be published by Routledge in 2017, serves on the Professional Advisory Board of the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, and directs a model mentorship program for artists with disabilities in Arlington, Virginia.

Five Tips on Encouraging Arts Learning for Young Students with Disabilities

By Jessica Pennock and Angela Steele

Artists Creating Together (ACT) and Grand Rapids-area Early Childhood Special Education programs joined forces to create an art program to meet the unique goals of the preschool population. The program was developed using research revealing the importance of arts education in brain development. This program continues to evolve and change to meet the needs of each student. Below are ACT’s top five tips learned from their work with artists and preschoolers.

  1. Make it meaningful. Art making is an intentional response to our experiences. Whatever the art form, ensure that students are learning how to ask purposeful questions about concepts they encounter every day, from community, to culture, to conflict and relationships.
  1. Celebrate choice. Oftentimes, management and standardization creeps into the arts; children are required to complete step-by-step crafts that look strikingly similar in the end. In every way possible, a child needs to own his or her work, and ultimately the idea behind it. Allowing for choice in terms of approach, media, and scale creates opportunities that challenge the child to think independently and will enrich the outcome of the piece.
  1. Provide opportunities to be proud. Students with disabilities are faced with challenging situations every day. The arts provide a unique space where children can shine; allow them to do so. Display works publically, provide specific positive feedback, and honor your young artists.
  1. Try it all. So you’re not sure if you’re up to teaching breakdancing? Not the best at drawing? Do it anyway, and do it with confidence. Open your child’s eyes to as many art forms, as many experiences, as many senses as you can possibly imagine. If you don’t know how, enlist someone that does.
  1. Stuck? Just flip it. Perhaps the most valuable advice an art teacher ever gave me came when I had been staring for an hour at my sorry-looking, in-progress wood sculpture, poking at it in a measly attempt to encourage it into a more compelling piece. “Just flip it over,” he suggested. What a difference it made—turning the piece into something I’d never imagined. Indeed, when our interactions with students prove challenging and we as leaders and educators feel we are losing our will to approach a student in a positive, uplifting way, take a mental step back and reimagine the situation from a different perspective. Teach your students to do the same.


Angela Steele headshot

Angela Steele

Angela Steele is the executive director of Artists Creating Together. She has a Master of Science in Education and experience teaching children and adults of diverse backgrounds and teaching those with special needs. One of her sons has a disability and participates in ACT programming, so she knows how transformational art education can be for individuals with disabilities. She is actively involved in supporting art and education throughout the community.


Jessica Pennock headshot

Jessica Pennock


Jessica Pennock is the Interim Program Assistant at Artists Creating Together.


Five Tips on Making Music Literacy Attainable for Students with Disabilities

By Jennifer Nichols

These five tips address teaching music literacy to students with special needs using a tactile approach. For more information on this subject, watch the recording of the VSA Webinar entitled “Can You Feel It?: A Tactile Approach to Music Literacy” from December 1, 2015 (you will be prompted to enter your name and email address before watching).

  1. Choose one concept. Music notation encompasses many concepts including pitch, rhythm, tempo, articulation, and dynamics. Focus on one concept for the student to master at a time.
  1. Use student-friendly notation. Create student-friendly notation using pictures. For example, if you are teaching the rhythm to the traditional song, “Star Light, Star Bright,” replace the note heads with star pictures or three dimensional star stickers for the students to feel and tap as they read the rhythm.
  1. Vary the materials. Using student-friendly tactile notation is key; however, not all materials work for everyone. Try using adhesive Velcro® dots in place of note heads. Some students respond better to glue dots where larger dots represent quarter notes and two smaller dots represent paired eighth notes.
  1. Use music literacy throughout the lesson. Be musical whether you are greeting the students or giving directions by speaking rhythmically and/or singing. If you choose to sing, use only two pitches to demonstrate pitch. Have students tap on a simplified, one-line staff to show when your voice is high, above the line, or low, below the line.
  1. Think of the individual. Create variations of tactile notation in order to find the material and/or method that work best for each student.


Jennifer Nichols is a kindergarten–grade 5 music teacher at Signal Hill Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia for Prince William County Schools. Jennifer teaches approximately 700 students, including students with autism and students with moderate and severe disabilities.