At Bubbles Academy, Social-Emotional Learning Stems From the Arts

Through creative play and a rich exploration of the arts, preschoolers at Bubbles Academy engage in social-emotional learning focused on the whole child.

After a truly difficult year for the youngest of children, preschoolers need an environment where they feel safe to process their experiences. There’s no better place for this than a nurturing preschool that recognizes the value of play and is staffed with teachers who are rooted in the arts. At Bubbles Academy, a preschool and arts enrichment center in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, children explore through play-based learning designed to encourage social-emotional development in an age-appropriate setting.

“This year is the perfect time to focus on social-emotional learning. It’s really a gift parents can give their little ones after such a hard year,” says Bubbles Academy Preschool Director Samantha Maxwell, who has a master’s degree in child development from Erikson Institute in Chicago, and a degree in acting from The Theatre School at DePaul University. “Play is how children process what is going on in the world around them — not by watching a video or by an adult telling them what to think or by completing a worksheet.”

Instead, says Maxwell, preschoolers role play and act, build structures, draw, sing, dance and play — all while gaining a strong sense of self and their role in the preschool community.

Building a healthier society and preparing for future academics

Because teachers trained in the arts already have gone through the process of stripping away learned and socialized emotional responses, they have a unique understanding of the multitude of ways we can express our emotions.

“When I earned my undergrad in acting, I had to unlearn what was socialized in me, and recognize emotions in others in order to be a successful communicator and performer,” Maxwell says. “I thought to myself, what if this type of deep emotional education was taught at the beginning of our education, not at the end? How much healthier would we be as a society?”

Maxwell realized the imperative to help young children learn to recognize and express their emotions. Time spent on social-emotional learning in early childhood builds stronger future learners who are more likely to be developmentally ready to tackle the academic challenges that come their way, she says.

“We get feedback from our former students’ elementary school teachers who say they are so glad our students were in their classes because they know how to bring the class together and they model how to help someone who is feeling sad,” she says. “Even if they go from Bubbles Academy to a highly academic environment, like an IB or selective enrollment school and are working grade levels ahead, they are prepared to adapt to any environment that is needed and already have some healthy coping mechanisms in place to help them deal with that kind of stress.”

Most of all, young children at Bubbles Academy develop a sense that school is a safe place where their opinions matter. They understand that learning is fun and that it’s important to be curious, and they are motivated by their own deep, intrinsic love of learning rather than doing tasks to earn a gold star, a good grade or any other type of extrinsic motivation, Maxwell says.

Child-led inquiry

At Bubbles Academy, the children’s interests guide the curriculum for the day, Maxwell says.

“Kids are smart and can absorb the feelings of people around them without even knowing the backstory. There is so much going on in the world right now, they can’t help but overhear some of it. We’ve noticed that this kind of emotional eavesdropping has caused some children to become overwhelmed and in some cases caused some regression in not only their social skills, but in their ability to self-regulate as well,” she says.

Yet, when children’s concerns are validated by teachers who are skilled both in early childhood development and in the arts — including acting, dance, visual art and music — there is space for social-emotional skills to strengthen.

“There has also been a lot of play around doctors, hospitals and being sick, which has very much been a common theme on the news and in the adult conversations happening around them. In order to process their feelings around this, the children want to give babies shots or get out the Band-Aids or pretend to be sick. After witnessing and facilitating this kind of play, our teachers are able to have age-appropriate discussions around any fears or anxieties the children might be having  about people being sick or going to the doctor,” Maxwell explains.

“We really value the play we see naturally happening and use that as inspiration for the curriculum for social-emotional learning and those very early academic skills that we help develop,” she explains.

For example, over this past year, so many children were missing out on those everyday social interactions, like going to the grocery store with their grown-ups. Our teachers noticed that shopping became a common theme in their students’ play, so they built off of those interests and turned the entire classroom into a store. Here, the children could process what they had been missing out on through dramatic play, selecting groceries, stocking shelves, interacting with cashiers and paying for their pretend purchases.

“Both of these play scenarios I just mentioned  are not only excellent ways to help children build their social skills and process the world around them, but are also rich with potential to build pre-academic skills, such as using clipboards as doctors to practice pencil grasps and writing, counting supplies and learning the meaning behind important vocabulary,” Maxwell says. “By honoring their play in this way, we are also showing our students that their ideas, and what they are curious about matter, and that their teachers are partners in their learning.”

Social-emotional intelligence rooted in the arts

What makes Bubbles Academy unique is its focus on early childhood education rooted in the arts and led by teachers with deep backgrounds in drama, voice, music and visual arts.

“We intentionally hire teachers who have experience in the arts or have been professional artists so that they are very good at expression and modeling and really helping the children understand that it’s OK if they feel frustrated or sad. They can absolutely bring that into the classroom,” says Maxwell.

Social-emotional learning that addresses the whole child in a developmentally appropriate way helps kids learn about their feelings and the feelings of others. They learn to name their feelings and  begin the lifelong process of self-regulation.

“Our teachers talk about what we might look like when we are mad, for instance. We explore how they might move their bodies when they are mad, and paint a picture using colors they think express that feeling. We act out different scenarios that might make them mad, and dance to music that might mimic those mad feelings.” Maxwell says.

“It’s about taking real-life things and a big part of the lives of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds is what they feel and can see in themselves and in others. And giving them the tools to express themselves in healthy ways. We know that when we are mad we might want to hit our friends, but what else can we do? How can we tell our grownups how we are feeling? Young children might not have developed the verbal skills or regulation to express what they are feeling so our kids learn lots of different modes of expression,” she explains.

The Bubbles Academy difference is the tight-knit community that families join when they attend the arts-integrated preschool program and learning opportunities there.

“We focus on  what 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds are supposed to be doing, which is playing, being creative and making lots of messes,” she says. “We love what we do. From newborn music classes to preschool, there is a village feel here. We are a community for your family until your child is 6 — and even long after that.”

Discover Bubbles Academy’s arts-integrated preschool program and early childhood learning opportunities for parents and children at


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