Take Time for Art's Sake!
By Kathreen Francis

Children are born artists, dancers and storytellers! They are naturally creative and enjoy all kinds of artistic expression: story-telling, music, dramatic play, dance and visual arts. Even babies and toddlers are capable of appreciating aesthetic experiences at a very young age; many babies demonstrate a preference for certain music, textures, colors and shapes over others. They are absorbed by images in books and express delight over music - even the most informal contact with creative media generates a positive response in children. It is our joyful responsibility to add meaning to these experiences and expand these artistic opportunities so that a child’s understanding of and love for the visual and performing arts is nurtured. As their knowledge and experience grows, research has show that so will their self-confidence, literacy skills, social skills and problem solving ability. Through the arts, a lifetime appreciation of creative expression will begin to develop.

A Harris Poll taken in 2005 measured American’s attitudes toward arts education and found that an astounding 93% agreed that the arts are a vital part of a well-rounded education, while 86% believed that children’s attitudes toward school are improved by a good arts education. More than half - 54% - rated the importance of arts education a “10” on a one-to-ten scale. Head Start, state school boards, No Child Left Behind requirements, teachers, and researchers all recommend quality arts education. Arts education funding is oftentimes tight, with programming sacrificed for those subjects considered more "academic." Student populations of economically disadvantaged areas are especially at risk, generally leaving them with the fewest opportunities to benefit from the arts.

The arts should not be perceived as a flimsy elective, nor should it be reduced to coloring books and paint by numbers for the youngest children. By almost every measure, children who have the opportunity to study the arts are happier, more self-confident and more likely to academically outperform those who don’t. Research has demonstrated repeatedly that the arts can enhance children’s experiences in almost every social and academic standard of achievement. The College Board Profile of SAT and Achievement Test Takers demonstrated that students with four or more years of arts study outperformed their peers by an average of 59 points on the verbal portion and 44 points on the math portion on the SAT. Employers appreciate workers who have excellent communication skills, can think creatively and can proficiently engage in problem solving. All of these skills can be fully developed and finely tuned with the study of the arts.

So what does this mean for the caregivers and teachers of the youngest children? It suggests that the child’s exposure to arts will affect his creative and academic growth as the child matures. It is up to all of us who spend time with babies, toddlers and preschoolers to create an environment that supports the love of and appreciation for all artistic endeavors, both as observers and creators.  Our efforts will become an immense source of aesthetic pleasure and bring with them quantifiable improvements in both academics and social relationships.

Academic Benefits of Art Education
Pre-literacy skills such as reading and writing are greatly improved when students are exposed to a quality, integrated arts education. Research shows us that studying dance, for example, substantively helps preschoolers with reading readiness skills, while the discussion of music helps with language skills. The report “Critical Evidence:  How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement,” commissioned by the National Assembly of States Arts Agencies (2006), also found research demonstrating that dramatic play helps children’s comprehension skills and improves reading and pre-reading skills among all groups, especially those first graders whose reading was below grade level.

According to “Looking at Art with Toddlers,” by Katherina Danko-McGhee, Ph.D., exploring and discussing art with even very young children pays off by helping children organize their thoughts and develop logical, yet creative thinking. Children learn that “visual symbols can communicate ideas” and story telling can help improve descriptive language. Taking care to allow children the opportunity to talk, dramatize, sing, dance and otherwise creatively communicate allows them to sharpen their ability to use symbolic thought.

Math and logic and their relationships to the arts also hold a fascination for the researcher.
The highly publicized “Mozart Effect” revolutionized our society’s thinking about the value of music to the young child's mind, and although specific results have been debated, it has generated new research and has come to symbolize a new way of thinking about the importance of the arts.

The 2006 National Assembly of State Arts Agencies report entitled “Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement,” analyzed studies that demonstrate measurable improvement in performance in math, especially among economically disadvantaged students. Music instruction is proven to help develop spatial temporal reasoning, which may lead to more sophisticated thinking about math concepts. 

Beyond Academics
Perhaps more importantly than test scores and grades are the less tangible, but powerful effects that critical study of the arts can give us. These include cognitive skills such as reasoning ability, problem solving skills, creativity and inventiveness, all of which are improved when children discuss, create and participate in the arts. They learn to draw inferences and strengthen their abstract thinking. Research in “Critical Evidence" found increases in fluency, originality and improvisation among children with a good integrated arts education. Once again, the largest improvements were found among young children who had critical social and developmental needs and were struggling below their peer groups.

Improved self-esteem, perceptions of school and respect for others are other positive benefits of art exposure. Attitudinal improvements, as demonstrated by subsequent behavior patterns, are shown in children regularly participating in the arts (“Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts,” Rand Corporation, 2004). Many older students who are disconnected from traditional academic study are often reconnected through arts and find new interests and role models. “Eloquent Evidence - Arts at the Core of Learning,” a study developed by the National Endowment for the Arts, reviewed 57 studies that found an improvement in self-confidence among preschoolers after regular participation in music. Moreover, a study from this report shows that children continue to “derive satisfaction from their band experience regardless (my emphasis) of their perception of their talents” (LeBlanc, C., 1990, Elementary Band Experience). Participating in this experience gives kids a sense of pride and positive interaction with their peers. Another interesting study in the report showed that a group of Arizona fourth graders’ stereotypical, negative views of Native Americans and other minority groups were diminished after participating in cultural studies of native arts and music (Edwards, K., 1994)

Art is important for its own sake! There are many studies supporting the cognitive value of an arts education, but in our souls we know that we benefit in so many other wonderful ways. Young children deserve the enrichment and delight that the visual and performing arts give us. The start we give them will benefit them for a lifetime.

Kathreen Francis is a Legislative Aide in the Michigan State Senate with a special policy interest in 0-5 learning and K-12 Educational/Funding issues. She is also the parent of four active children.