While arts programs in many school districts across the country have suffered cuts because of budget constraints, schoolchildren in Fairfield still have opportunities to exercise their imagination and to create. In fact, many are using pencil and paintbrush after school hours, thanks to a paint-your-own-pottery class offered in an after-school program at all of the elementary schools.

Led by staff of Fairfield-based Hands On Pottery, the classes give children a break from the Internet and other forms of electronic entertainment. Cell phones are left at the door, so there's no texting going on, and there's no computers in class, so there's no logging onto YouTube or Facebook. It's a good old-fashioned art class, where students work on a different pottery piece each week. Children recently made cookie mugs that have a slot for a cookie at the bottom. Last week, they designed Halloween-themed candy bowls that will be glazed, fired and ready to take home for the holiday next week.

Dawn Cobb, owner of Hands On Pottery, thinks the after-school art, organized by PTA parents, fulfills a need for the youngsters.

"I just don't think kids get enough art time," she said. "I don't think they get to sit down and be very creative very often. I think it's really important to work the other side of the brain, instead of just sitting in front of a computer all day."

Hands On Pottery instructor Lynn Kane, who led a pottery class at Jennings last Thursday afternoon, said it's rewarding for children to know they played a part in creating something that can eat off of, drink out of or give as a gift.

"They're designing pieces that they can actually use," she said.

Though the children don't actually shape objects from clay with their hands, like more traditional pottery classes, Kane doesn't believe any fun is lost.

"Not every child has the motor skills to be able to shape something," she said. "We take all the hard work out of it. We give them a piece that is paint ready."

During the Jennings class, some children drew designs on their candy bowls based on sample images, while others were more creative. One fourth-grader, Erin Neff, drew a cat that was on her T-shirt, not an easy feat considering she was looking at the cat upside down and she drew it right-side up. However, she succeeded where a lesser artist might have failed.

Several second-graders made a "candy corn guy" the theme of their Halloween bowl. However, Caroline Pratt said her character was slightly different -- "a candy corn guy who's crazy."

Seven-year-old Lena Conway, a second-grader at Jennings, drew a pirate, adding that she plans to be a pirate for Halloween.

Others used the color orange on their bowls' exterior, reflecting the a Halloween theme, but Sana Nagori chose not to follow that popular choice. The outside of her bowl -- black with bits of silver -- resembled a night sky. The inside of the bowl featured not a witch or a pumpkin, but a moon half-covered by a cloud.

Sana said she loves the after-school class "because you get to create your own ideas and paint whatever you want."

Fifth-grader Hartley Curran said it's nice being able to create art that can hold things.

Trey Diurno, 7, said he plans to give his bowl to a neighbor. "It's fun. It's a good experience for your hand," he said. "The whole part of it is about having fun."

Nicole Festa, 9, a fourth-grader at Jennings, said drawing on and painting a bowl, or other objects, is a lot more fun than putting a pencil or paintbrush to flat paper.

"It's more interesting because you actually get to make something you can use," she said. "If it's just on a piece of paper, you can't use it like a bowl or a cup."

While Hands On Pottery staffers do a lot with children in school, many school-age children and their parents visit the Post Road business to create their art work. But Hands On Pottery instructor Jim Davis said he likes going to the schools to work with younsgters "because you get to see them in their environment."

In addition, Davis thinks the children concentrate more closely when they are at school. A class usually runs seven weeks, though it depends on the school.

"I really get to know each kid's ability and I can keep pushing them to make them better," he said. When children visit Hands On Pottery, it's often a one-time visit, he said.

The after-school class also benefits working parents, since some wouldn't have time to leave their job, pick up their child and take him or her to an after-school program.

"It allows a child to experience an after-school activity within [their respective school]," said Doreen Herron, president of the Sherman Elementary School PTA. "It eliminates the travel and brings the program to them, and children like being able to do something with children they go to school with."

Herron said other classes available outside regular school schedules include running, Lego "fungineering," karate and Irish dance, all of which are organized by parent volunteers. Carrie Sakey, a member of the Sherman PTA, said her 7-year-old daughter Gabriela, who took part last year in jump-roping and drama classes, loves the pottery class she's involved in this year.

"She likes being able to use her imagination and creativity," Sakey said. "This brings it out more."

Kathleen Billington, a Hands On Pottery instructor, said such after-school classes were never available to her when she was growing up.

"I think it's a great way for kids to learn there's a lot more out there that you can do besides sports," she said. "There's nothing wrong with sports but for some kids, it's not the ideal situation for them every single day of the week."

And for Kane, who once thought of becoming a teacher, but became a "computer tech," teaching in the schools -- though after the final school bell -- offers her a glimpse of what might have been.

"It's a creative way of teaching and I get so much fulfillment out of it," she said.