Harding Elementary students were blindfolded as they painted on the second portion of this therapeutic art project, and were advised to focus on their feelings about the future. | Credit: Courtesy S.B. Unified School District

Twenty 4th-grade students from Harding Elementary — suited up in aprons, boots, and goggles — prepared themselves for the inevitable splashes of paint as one student pulled a massive slingshot full of paint back before letting go. In unison, the students shouted, “Take that, COVID!”

Students at Harding Elementary School were given a chance to tackle their emotions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and distance learning with both a hands-on slingshot and blindfolded painting projects late last month. Students were barely able to contain their excitement as each of their peers pulled back the slingshot, each sitting on the edge of their seat and cheering loudly whenever the slingshot was let go.

Artist Luke Lamar and District Superintendent Hilda Maldonado assist a student in preparing his slingshot full of paint. | Credit: Courtesy S.B. Unified School District

Harding Elementary Principal Veronica Binkley said this project was created to allow students to process whatever they had experienced during the pandemic, whether positive or negative. All students from Transitional Kindergarten through 6th grade at the elementary school participated in the project, totaling about 270 students. Dr. Sean O’Brien, a consultant for the STEAM program, and Luke Lamar, a local artist, guided the students through the project, giving them direction and encouragement whenever needed. 

The first canvas with the slingshot set up was about “letting go,” and Binkley even encouraged students to shout, “Take that, COVID!” as they let the slingshot go. The second canvas, set up about 20 feet away from the slingshot, was about envisioning the future, and students were given special goggles that blacked out their vision to help them focus their intentions. “We want you to focus on the feeling,” O’Brien told the group of 4th graders. “When we close our eyes, it allows us to have a different experience.”

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Harding psychologist Jill McGonigle said this project was all about allowing students to process whatever emotions had been brought on by the pandemic and express them in a productive way. “[We wanted to] give a voice to each child’s lived experience of COVID and acknowledge how it has impacted them, too,” McGonigle said. “We intended to create something special and meaningful together to honor their stories and memorialize this time in their lives.”

The first step of the project involved McGonigle going into an individual class and explaining the project to students, giving each student a small square of paper to write words or draw pictures that represent how they felt during the height of the pandemic. Those small pieces of paper were then printed onto a canvas, allowing students to fling the paint directly onto their drawings. 

Some drawings had pictures of Zoom lessons, while other kids wrote about how happy they felt spending more time with their families. Other drawings depicted graves or family members they had lost to COVID-19. “Many students have lost family members to COVID. Many felt very isolated and fearful during lockdown,” McGonigle said. “It was truly a cathartic and therapeutic experience to acknowledge them in this way and give a voice to their stories.”

Harding Elementary students suit up in boots, aprons, and goggles as they prepare for their art project. | Credit: Courtesy S.B. Unified School District

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