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Art Influences Learning
By Anna Reyner Art Therapist

Much has been written about how art enhances creativity, imagination, and self-esteem, but far less is said about how art encourages cognition, critical thinking, and learning. Our current education system places great emphasis on academic development. As a result, arts programs are being reduced or even eliminated from classrooms to accommodate more didactic teaching methods. While art educators and child development specialists recognize that the arts are not a "frill" or enrichment activity, the arts are basic to education. With the many challenges our public education system faces today, combining art with academic subjects in the classroom becomes increasingly important. The US Secretary of Education recently published a report on "The Value Added Benefits of the Arts," in which he states, "Studies have shown that arts teaching and learning can increase student's cognitive and social development. The arts can be a critical link for students in developing the crucial thinking skills and motivations they need to achieve at higher levels" (Deasy, & Stevenson, 2002). 


How Art Impacts Learning Outcomes

What makes art such a great teaching tool? Art engages children's senses in open-ended play and develops Cognitive, Social, Emotional and Sensori-Motor skills. Art is a cooperative learning experience that provides pleasure, challenge, and a sense of mastery. Instruction in the arts is one of the best ways in which to involve the different modes of learning; through art, children learn complex thinking skills and master developmental tasks (Belden & Fessard, 2001). 


Child development is a sequential process: Children progress from simple to complex abilities. Art activities provide children with sensory learning experiences they can master at their own rate. Art materials and techniques range from the simplest to the most complex. Young preschoolers can explore dozens of  non-toxic art materials directly with their hands or with a myriad of painting and clay tools. Older children can select art materials that offer greater complexity and challenge. Art manufacturers provide an exciting range of tools with which children can work. Tree branches, shells, sponges, found objects, or simple kitchen tools can easily become art accessories as well. Each art material and accessory provides different skill development and has the potential for new discoveries and a creative classroom offers a wide range of art materials and tools for exploration and learning. 


The following chart outlines developmental skills facilitated through art. Eleven art activities are listed at left, with cognitive, social-emotional, and sensori-motor outcomes assigned to each. There is much overlap in skill development within these and other art activities. However, this chart outlines one of the main skills developed within each activity and is a starting point for analyzing other art ideas, including your own classroom favorites. 


Integrating Art into the Classroom

Art is an outstanding tool for teaching not only developmental skills, but also academic subjects such as math, science, and literacy. The most effective learning takes place when children do something related to the topic they are learning. When children study any given concept, they learn it better and retain it longer if they do an art activity that reinforces that learning. This information has been recognized by teachers since the time of Confucius, when he said: "I hear and I forget.  I see and I remember; I do and I understand."


Art & Literacy

Art activities are a great way to promote literacy and language development. Children who draw pictures of stories they have read improve their reading comprehension, and are motivated to read new material (Deasy & Stevenson, 2002). Art tools introduce pre-writing experiences, as early learners grasp tools that later help them hold a pencil for writing. Art develops expressive and reflective skills that enhance writing, and also 

promotes print awareness, spatial relation skills, visual literacy, and verbal creativity. 


Art & Math

Art can be looked at through the lens of mathematics. Young children can work with simple collage materials and beads to introduce numbers, positive and negative space, classification, and sequencing and pattern recognition. Tangrams can be brought in, and art journals can become creative number or shape books. "Math is not just about numbers, formulas and logic, math is also about structure, symmetry, shape and beauty," says University of Colorado math professor Carla Farsi. "Conversely, art is not only about emotion, color and aesthetics, but also about rhythm, patterns and problem solving."


Involving Parents in the Process

Art can be incorporated across the curriculum and can also be encouraged as a family activity. Parents are valuable resources for facilitating learning. To reach out to the parents in her Kindergarten class, Mrs. Miller began the year with a parent presentation on "What is Child Art?" As a result, parents understood and valued their children's art in a different way (Althouse, Johnson, & Mitchell, 2003). We often hear parents get excited about their children's art and talk about how charming it is. "Oh, my! What a beautiful picture!" As educators, we can help parents become more aware about the value of art. 


Art activities involve processes as well as products. It is the process of doing art that is so important to learning.  While parents tend to focus on the product, educators can call attention to the process. Once parents acknowledge the value of art, they are more likely to keep art supplies at home, designate a 

household area for "messy art," and become more involved generally in art. Statements to parents about their children's art can have a big impact on their attitudes and actions. When a parent praises a child's art in front of you, try making a statement about the learning process involved, such as "Yes, I love that 

picture, too. Jesse enjoyed drawing this month, and drawing helped improve his writing skills." 



Art Activity               Art Process                                      Learning Concept

Open-Ended              Children work within                           Spatial relations

Drawing                     boundaries of large or small 

                                 paper, organizing content and 



Handmade Art            Children use paper, paper                 Book knowledge     

Journal                       bags, or specialty collage                and appreciation

                                 papers to create journal 

                                 covers, pages and binding.


Crayon                       Wax crayon (solid) resists                Properties of materials 

Resist                         liquid watercolor. Materials 

Drawing                       repel each other. Wax is 

                                   insoluble to liquid.  


BioPutty¨                     Liquid BioColor¨ mixes with                Cause & effect and

                                  BioPutty¨ solution and changes           Change of state 

                                  to solid. Molecules in BioColor¨ 

                                   bond with molecules in solution.


Pour 1 cup of BioPutty¨ solution into a container and add 1/3 cup of BioColor¨ paint. Run through your fingers to create putty. Both BioPutty and BioColor¨ are available from Discount School Supply, 800-627-2829.      


Collage                         Glue paper and collage                       Sequencing, rhythm,

                                    materials onto paper in                       pattern

                                    composition of child's choice 



Children love art because it's fun and provides them with authentic self-expression: The freedom of choice, thought, and feeling. Art teaches important skills for living and develops young minds. The US Department of Labor recently published a report that supports these views by concluding, "Arts education helps students develop skills needed for most jobs in later life, including creative thinking, problem solving, exercise of individual responsibility, sociability and self esteem."




Anna Reyner, M.A., ATR, MFT, is a dynamic creative arts instructor who is known for motivating people to get excited about their own creativity. She has presented workshops and keynotes on art therapy and imagination arts at more than 200 state, national, and international conferences.



Althouse, R., & Johnson, M., & 

            Mitchell, S., (2003). The colors 

            of learning: Integrating the visual arts 

            into the early childhood curriculum. 

            New York: Teachers College Press.

Belden, A. & Fessard, O. (October 2001). 

            Children and the arts. Georgia Family.

Kilmer, S.J., & Hoffman, H. (1995). 

            Transforming Science Curriculum. In S. Bredekamp & Rosegrant, T. (Eds.). 

            Reaching potentials: Transforming 

            early childhood curriculum and 

            assessment, Vol. 2. Washington, DC: 


Deasy, R., & Stevenson, L., (May, 2002) 

            The arts: Critical links to student 

            success. The Arts Education 

            Partnership, Council of Chief State 

            School Officers, Washington, DC.