Why the Arts Matter in Early Education

At the recent Mom 2.0 Summit, I heard from a lot of moms who described recent debates – at their children’s schools – about the role of the arts in early education. In particular, during a series of roundtable workshops and discussions led by Elmer’s Products, Inc, numerous stories were shared about schools that are reducing – or cutting completely – time for the arts (particularly the visual arts and crafting ) in order to focus exclusively on “academics” (meaning reading and mathematics). As a developmental researcher, this practice is disconcerting to me, as it reflects a fundamentally flawed perspective on cognitive development in the early, formative years of life.

We’ve known for decades the value of hands-on activities in early childhood. Arts and crafts, as typically practiced in preschool and the early formal school years, have always been recognized as a primary way of promoting the all-important fine motor skills that provide a primary mechanism for cognitive exploration and learning (hence the value of literal “hands-on learning”). Current research has begun to uncover even more benefits. Thus, a central component of these many conversations at Mom 2.0 focused on an emerging paradoxical situation in education: as the research evidence supporting involvement in the arts increases, the opportunities for young children to engage in the arts may be declining.

The argument for “academics rather than arts” is simple – the primary goal of education is to accelerate the development of formal scholastic skills like reading, writing, and mathematics. Of course, children’s cognitive capacities extend far beyond these core “academic” abilities. Initiatives like STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) provide compelling frameworks that integrate the arts with science and mathematics. Developmental researchers have begun to articulate how the arts, in the early years, support the development of core cognitive skills (skills that are applicable to a wide range of academic subjects). For example, research conducted in partnership with Elmer’s Let’s Bond initiative identified, via survey of experts in child development, three such processes fostered by participation in arts and crafts:

  • Visual-spatial skills (e.g., pattern recognition, detection of sequences, spatial rotation)
  • Fine motor support for school readiness (e.g., motor manipulation of writing instruments)
  • Executive functioning abilities (e.g., working memory, selective attention)

Educational research Jennifer S. Groff has provided a compelling theoretical model and rationale for the primary role that the visual arts play in development and education in an influential paper published in the Harvard Educational Review. Consider this summation from the abstract of that paper:

Emerging research on the brain’s cognitive processing systems had led Groff to put forth a new theory of mind, whole-mindedness. Here she presents the evidence and construct for this frame of mind, how it sits in relation to multiple intelligences theory, and how it might redefine the justification for arts education in schools, particularly in our digitally and visually rich world.

The point about our “digitally and visually rich world” deserves a bit of expansion. Groff argues that visual information processing – those core brain processes engaged by the visual arts – are a primary cognitive skill set and primary mechanism for how children learn. As our world becomes more visually driven, we are beginning to understand in greater depth just how important these abilities are for learning and cognitive development. Promoting these critical abilities via the arts do not come at the sacrifice of developing traditional “academic” skills. Rather, the arts not only offer support for later verbal and mathematical fluency, but also provide essential platforms for enhancing and fostering core cognitive skills that are essential for today’s young children.

Kindergarten Craft Activity via Shutterstock.com

 

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