Michigan’s 4-H Children’s Art Exchange with China: Impactful! Part 1

Michigan’s 4-H Children’s Art Exchange with China has been positively impacting youth for over 25 years.

Chengdu (China) Music and Dance Theater Troupe.
Chengdu (China) Music and Dance Theater Troupe.

Michigan’s 4-H Children’s Art Exchange with China has been positively impacting more than 350,000 Michigan youth for over 25 years. Through the Art Exchange, children in grades K-6 communicate and learn about China by being asked to create “visual letters” to send children their own ages in China. A visual letter is like a written letter in that they both tell stories, share important ideas and feelings and connect children on two sides of the globe. The medium, however, is different in that visual letters use images and written letters use words. Clearly, the written letter is limited with the language differences. Thus, visual letters have taken shape as the primary means of communicating and learning about each other.

Children all across Michigan are developing a global awareness and knowledge of China. Teachers are adding to their annual lesson plans, including visual arts, such as elements of design and composition, awareness of various art techniques, telling a story through art, understanding traditional and modern style Chinese painting. In the area of social studies, youth learn geography, environmental studies, language, culture, and history. Skills gained in creative writing, such as story writing, personal reflection; technology, such as studying about China and Chinese culture on the web, basic comparable, such as what does basic comparable mean; and more that provides richness to the schools global education.

Panda dancersIt all started in 1989 when the Chengdu (China) Music and Dance Theater Troupe visited Michigan and performed for over 23,000 children across the state. This successful adventure, lead at the time by Michigan State University Extension's Betsy Knox with the support of former State Director of Michigan 4-H Mike Tate, whom was inducted into the National 4-H Hall of Fame in 2015, spurred the now annual Michigan’s 4-H Children’s Art Exchange with China. 

In 1990, artwork was sent by Chinese children between the ages of 3 and 14. Most of the artwork, however, was completed by 5-to 8-year-olds. These children learned traditional Chinese brush painting, modern style painting and calligraphy in after-school arts programs and weekend classes. All these boys and girls lived in the People’s Republic of China (mainland China). In a competitive selection process, 200 children’s art pieces were sent by ship from China to the United States, rolled up in three small bundles. These bundles traveled for 2.5 months, over 7,500 miles, to reach Michigan. The story behind each art piece was developed by working with MSU Chinese graduate students and with Chinese cultural and historical references. The art was then sorted by content and style (traditional versus modern) and placed in teaching kits that we still use today. Some of these beautiful pieces of artwork not utilized in the kits can also be seen displayed in various areas of the 4-H Kettunen Center in Tustin, Michigan.

The Michigan 4-H Children’s Art Exchange with China annually has an average of 3,000 participants, 14 participating counties including elementary schools, after-school programs, libraries, camps, 4-H clubs and more. Artwork is submitted annually for the selection process with 100 pieces chosen and sent to China. A long term study is currently being conducted of the  thousands of youth positively impacted annually from the program 1995 to 2019. The collected evaluation percentages are always high in the increase of knowledge, awareness, understanding and desire to learn more because of participation in the Michigan 4-H Children’s Art Exchange with China. Read more about the China Art Project and the impact it has made in Michigan youth by visiting “Michigan’s 4-H Children’s Art Exchange with China: Impactful! Part 2.”

The 4-H Michigan’s Children’s Art Exchange with China selected annual artwork is online to enjoy. You can find it linked from the 4-H China Project main page. Each year the artwork chosen as a gift from Michigan 4-H to China placed on exhibit on the web page. The program is consistently successful and impactful. 

Other global educational opportunities can also be found on the MSU Extension Global and Cultural Education website. For more information about 4-H learning opportunities and other 4-H programs, contact your county MSU Extension office.

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