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Art for Children’s Sake


Anyone who has observed little children at play knows that the arts—all of them—come naturally to the young. The two-year-old happily singing glissandos in the bathtub, the three-year-old intently drawing pathways with markers and paper, and the four-year-old creating dramatic story worlds with toy soldiers or dolls are all learning to manipulate symbols in sophisticated ways. The sad thing is that many school districts have been turning a blind eye to children’s native artistic impulses. Budget cuts have left a shrunken curriculum, one in which math, science, and reading get much larger slices of the budgetary pie. Meanwhile, the arts are left to, if not starve, then at least become malnourished, especially in underserved urban neighborhoods. Considering the many benefits of arts education to children, to schools, and to communities, it’s a wonder that school boards are not clamoring for more art instead of less. Here are just a few of the good things that arts programs can accomplish:

The arts improve academics. Among other studies, research at UCLA has shown that pupils who are involved with the arts do much better academically than those who are not. The differences between the two groups grow over time, both in low-income and in well-served populations.

The arts encourage kids to act like adults. Through art, students learn the kind of involved, imaginative, cooperative, and responsible behavior that one usually finds—or wishes one found—in adult work. Studies at Brown and Stanford universities have discovered that in afterschool arts programs, activities are more likely to be planned by students. In other afterschool programs, including sports, adults do most of the planning. The children in arts programs also practice talking about their projects the way adults talk about theirs—they critique their own work and that of others, they puzzle out loud, and they imagine alternative possibilities and solutions.

The arts benefit schools and communities. Researchers at Columbia have learned that students in arts-rich schools have a better rapport with their teachers. Teachers, in turn, are more motivated. And according to the UCLA research, the arts help schools and neighborhoods celebrate diversity and empower minority students. You haven’t seen what poetry can do for kids if you haven’t seen a documentary called Louder Than a Bomb. It’s about six hundred young people coming together for a poetry slam in Chicago. The many hip-hop groups in schools and neighborhoods across the country further attest to the ability of the arts to help the young find their voice.

The arts make peace. Andrew Garrod, a professor of education at Dartmouth, realized this when he traveled to Bosnia to direct Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. His production brought together groups that had been at war with one another: Muslim teenagers played Juliet and the Capulet family, and their Christian counterparts played Romeo and his Montague family.

The arts promote mental health. Artwork can provide ways for troubled youth to put a wedge between impulse and action. Take the case of an eight-year-old boy who had been tyrannizing his classmates with scary talk about Godzilla. Kayoko Seki, a Tufts graduate student, got him to draw Godzilla, and with her steady encouragement and constructive criticism (“Are Godzilla’s feet so small?” “Does Godzilla’s skin really look like that?”), the boy became an artist, organizing his thoughts and feelings about Godzilla rather than unleashing them on his peers.

To teach art is to teach people to be better at being human. Our species thrives on creating and appreciating beauty, and on making symbols that both express and deepen the human experience. In fact, the best things people do always have an element of art to them. As Elliot Eisner, the famed advocate for the arts for children, put it so well, “The highest accolade we can confer upon someone is to say that he or she is an artist, whether a carpenter or a surgeon, a cook or an engineer, a physicist or a teacher.”

W. GEORGE SCARLETT is a senior lecturer and deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development. He has a bumper sticker on his car that reads “Caution: Driver may be singing.”

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