During his first year of preschool, my 3-year-old spent every morning drawing. While the other kids were doing seemingly academic activities like tracing letters and singing counting songs, my son stuck with colored pencils.
Fast-forward one year later; my son has branched out -- way out! He completes puzzles, counts abacus beads, and writes his name in straight letters. Suddenly we've shifted from picture books at bedtime to Charlotte's Web. "When," I thought, "did he learn all this?"
Well, he probably learned it while drawing. Drawing helps kids boost their confidence, improve fine motor skills, get reading-ready, and hone their critical-thinking ability, says Kenneth Wesson, Ph.D., an educational consultant in neuroscience in San Jose, California, who has studied the role of the brain in making art.
Although the arts have traditionally been considered fun frills, they're actually a central piece in the education puzzle. And it's not just the visual arts. Music can help with math and reading; dance sets a foundation for physical health and also furthers self-awareness; acting can boost vocabulary. Art can impact kids' emotional and social lives too. "It lets kids take risks without failure and builds confidence," says Joseph M. Piro, Ph.D., professor in the department of curriculum and instruction of Long Island University in Brookville, New York.
While tightened household budgets might make violin lessons a stretch, arts instruction need not be formal or pricey. You can expose your kids to dance, music, and drama at home, with stuff you already have. We've talked to researchers, arts experts, and teaching artists to come up with activities for kids of all ages.