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.
The fact that dance builds strength, agility, and flexibility is a given, says Maria Suszynski, executive director of Wellspring/Cory Terry & Dancers, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but it also boosts confidence and problem-solving skills, and teaches kids about teamwork.
Toddlers: Jumpin' Jellybeans
Crank up the music, and let your kid have ants in his pants! Explore every aspect of movement -- hopping, leaping high and low, wiggling fast and slow. Following simple sequences gives toddlers' short-term memory a workout and develops body awareness.
Preschoolers: The Shoebox Game
Your child pretends she's in a shoe store where every kind of shoe -- antigravity boots, ice skates, shoes that have gum on the soles, or winged sandals -- makes her dance in a different way. This stretches a child's imagination and encourages her to see the world from different angles, says Theresa Purcell Cone, Ph.D., assistant professor of health and exercise science at Rowan University, in Glassboro, New Jersey.
School-Age Kids: Human Sculptures
Your child dances around you while you make a shape with your body and freeze. Have her build onto your "sculpture" with her own body, perhaps forming a letter or an animal using creativity to solve "problems," says Dr. Cone. ("How can my arms be a new animal? Oh, I can raise them like butterfly wings!")
Kids have been finger-painting and scribbling for eons, but only recently did researchers realize all its ripple effects. Dr. Wesson has found that visual art engages many areas of a child's brain, including the parts that control decision making, action planning, physical movement, and memory. Attention to detail is a critical component in reading skills too.
Toddlers: Pudding Painting
Separate a batch of vanilla pudding into a few small bowls and add a drop of different food coloring to each. Dress (or undress!) your child for a mess, and let him "paint" on a surface covered with a plastic sheet. At this age, art should involve many senses, says Susanna Carrillo, founder of Paper Scissors Oranges, an art studio for children in Darien, Connecticut. It's also a lesson on color mixing—red + blue = purple!
Preschoolers: Macaroni Mosaics
Mix raw pasta with food coloring or liquid watercolor in a bowl. Spread on a tray to dry, then let kids glue it onto cardboard to make picture frames. Besides emphasizing fine motor skills and the fact that you can make art out of anything, these types of projects provide a fun way for getting kids to stay focused and on task to complete a project -- skills they'll need later in math, reading, and complex problem-solving.
School-Age Kids: Life-Size Self-Portraits
Have your child lie down on a large piece of craft paper so you can trace the outline of her whole figure. Then have her sketch in the details of her hair, face, clothes, skeleton, internal organs, whatever else she chooses. As she draws, she may need to examine herself in a mirror, which develops her ability to observe and discriminate details -- a key skill in reading comprehension. Hang the image on her bedroom door.
Pretending to be someone else seems like pure play, but it actually builds serious brainpower. "Acting fosters children's language proficiency, vocabulary development, and storytelling skills," says Wendy Mages, Ed.D., an independent researcher in human development and psychology.
Toddlers: Take a Trip
Flip through a photo album and help your child relive an experience. Encourage him to perform the actions along with the story and use sensory-rich details, like how the apple in a photo smelled and tasted. Having a mental picture of what words mean is a critical skill for new readers.
Preschoolers: ID the Object
Collect a bunch of items from around the house and put them in a bag. Take turns choosing an item, and try to answer the question "What else can you imagine it is?" by using the object in new and creative ways. (Perhaps the colander becomes a hat or a face mask.) Besides providing a cute photo op, this will help your child learn to think on her feet.
School-Age Kids: Bring Books to Life
Read your child's favorite book while he performs the actions. Explain how to dramatize tricky words. ("Gnash" is a toughie in Where the Wild Things Are.) Or pick two characters and put on the "play" together, trying to recall what happens next without the book. Invite an audience (stuffed animals count).
Things like beat counting, key signatures, and note values draw upon math. But researchers are finding that music may help with reading too. In one study, children who had musical instructions twice a week for three years scored higher in reading skills than kids who didn't get music lessons.
Toddlers: Echo, Echo
Even kids too little to memorize lyrics can echo you during a call-and-response song. Using a standard like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," insert your child's name and favorite things, and have her repeat after you. This builds strong memory and listening skills, says Katherine Damkohler, executive director of Education Through Music, a nonprofit in New York City.
Preschoolers: Build a Band
Help kids invent instruments from stuff you have around the house. Put raw rice into plastic containers to make maracas. Fill some glass bottles with varying levels of water and strike gently to make a xylophone. It's a lesson in recycling and physics (different levels of water make new notes!). And trying to craft something to create music involves critical-thinking skills.
School-Age Kids: Time to Tune In
Play a song by one musician and another by a different one -- say, Dolly Parton and Duke Ellington.Then have him describe things that were the same about both as well as things that were unique to each. Supply the vocabulary for what he's noticing -- fast vs. slow tempo, high vs. low pitch, names of instruments. Being able to pick apart a sound can boost language and listening skills.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Parents magazine.