Inspiring the next generation of artists

Erin Zoumaras, director of Irvine Unified School District’s art program, takes joy in nurturing children’s creativity.

Erin Zoumaras loves to inspire children’s creativity – so much so that when she’s not on the job as director of Irvine Unified School District’s art program, you’re likely to find her drawing, dancing, playing the piano and singing silly songs with her two daughters, ages 3 and 5.

Zoumaras, 41, stepped into her new job last July, after serving as coordinator of the nationally recognized department. In just one recent sign of the district’s success, nearly 250 IUSD K-12 students were chosen to join the Southern California School Band and Orchestra Association Honor Groups. Auditions are notoriously challenging. This year, only 741 musicians were chosen from more than 4,000 applicants. More than half of the elementary-level selectees came from Irvine public schools.

“There’s a lot of excitement in the community around music and the arts,” Zoumaras says. “For years, when other districts were taking music and arts education out of their curriculum, we continued to add to it.”

A love for music

Zoumaras spent her childhood in rural Missouri, where she developed her love of music in grade school and soon knew she wanted to teach young children. “It’s such a joy to interact with kids in ways that help them develop unknown talents and help them see themselves as maybe they haven’t before,” she says.

She credits the district’s achievements in the arts to Irvine parents, who “really understand the importance of art education for their kids’ social and emotional development,” and to organizations like Irvine Company, which provides millions of dollars in annual support, and the Irvine Public Schools Foundation.

In her new job, Zoumaras says she’ll focus on continuing to find, hire and retain high-quality instructors, primarily through partnerships with local universities. In her spare time, she plans to keep providing high-quality instruction to her own kids.

Erin Zoumaras’ 5 tips for raising creative children

1. “Start by spending 20 minutes a day on doodling, drawing, knitting or even baking and decorating a cake. You don’t have to be good at it to enjoy the benefits for your physical and emotional health. Just do something small every day.”

2. “Sign up for an arts class for your child and yourself. They help children express their feelings and connect with others. IUSD elementary students take art and music classes, while older students can study dance, art, music, theater and more.”

3. “Be sure to take time to go out and experience art. Do it at least three times a year. Visit a museum; listen to a concert. In Irvine and Orange County, we’re so fortunate to have so many free, accessible events – it’s just very easy to do.”

4. “Talk to your children about their art-making experiences. To start, you can ask open-ended questions like ‘Why did you choose that color? How did that music or dance, etc., make you feel? What was your favorite part of the process?’ ”

5. “Remember not to be judgmental about the results. This is important. Many people can pinpoint the moment that they stopped singing or drawing or dancing to a moment when someone close to them criticized their efforts.”