Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
Picasso nailed it when describing the creative potential of children. Every child is born with a naturally creative and inquisitive spirit; however, this often fades as a child grows up. We are now realizing that harnessing and nurturing this inherent creativity is incredibly useful and influential for the development of the child.
Benefits of Art in Early Childhood
In a 2015 literature review by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), strong evidence was found that indicates a connection between the arts and social and emotion skills, such as “helping, caring, and sharing activities.” For over a decade, the NEA has collected data regarding the effect of art on young children (infants through 8 year-olds). More arts education grants are being funded and integrated into other disciplines of early childhood, according to NEA arts education specialist, Terry Liu. “Teaching artists or organizations that have artists skilled in working with early childhood age groups are working with parents or Head Start centers to help them incorporate arts education and learning at this very early age,” states Liu. In many of these programs, art is increasingly becoming a tool to learn other subjects rather than being singular pursuit. Much like the increasingly popular STEAM approach, art can be used to learn about completely contrasting subjects, such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Here’s what that boils down to: students are using the right side of the brain to learn about subjects stored on left side of the brain. The result? Innovation, risk-taking, and creative problem-solving – just to name a few.
Art is now seen as a tool for understanding the world and making sense of one’s own emotions. Additional studies have been conducted that have found a correlation between artmaking and emotional regulation. Numerous studies have demonstrated a relationship between visual arts and music-based activities and social skills. Jennifer Drake, a psychologist and assistant professor at Brooklyn College, worked with children between the ages of 6-12 and has found that drawing can calm negative emotions felt after being asked to recall a sad personal event. Furthermore, there has been substantial research that demonstrates that a strong social-emotional skills developed in early childhood correlate to academic and employment success in the long-term.
Through the process of making art throughout childhood, creativity is often taught out of children. Adults have often affirmatively decided whether or not they are artistic, whereas children do not have a preconceived idea about what makes art good. Barbara Hunt McLanahan, executive director of the Children’s Museum of Art, describes that attitudes about what qualifies as art is limited to adults and that “children are way more open-minded.” McLanahan believes that art appreciation comes naturally to children, and adult must encourage this natural inclination.
Furthermore, the arts education for young children can introduce judgements about the artmaking process. Jessica Hamlin, an Arts Education professor at NYU Steinhardt, worries “that we often teach creativity out of students rather than integrating it into the way we want all students to think of themselves, whether they become artists or not. [Making art] correlates with development and brain science. It’s nature and nature, not versus.” Hamlin describes that elementary school art classes often focus on just skill, demonstrating that drawings should look like. Through this approach, many students become discouraged and stop attempting creativity, as previous instruction has indicated that they are not good at it. Many museums have incorporated an inquiry-based approach into their children’s arts program in order to encourage creativity. To do this, the educators prompt children with open-ended questions while emphasizing that there is not one right answer. By doing so, the educators can help to elicit a conversation around the art: How does it make you feel? What do you see? What did you use this material? The instructors encourage the children to be confident in their responses and their artwork helping to build a positive outlook towards one’s own creative output.
While it is important for art education in elementary schools to foster a creative spirit for their young students, many museums are incorporating spaces and programs that also address this need. Many of these art education programs aim to foster a connection between viewing art and creating it. To do so, it is common for educators to have art-making activities that relate to the current exhibition on view at the museum. For example, the Whitney Museum has programs for children of all ages – which begin with Stroller Tours for newborns and their parents. One of the Whitney’s most popular programs is Open Studio, which is a graduate-student led art studio in the museum that is open to families on the weekend. As a drop-in art-making program, families are able to freely explore materials and art creation.
An additional benefit: by engaging with children at a young age, museums are also building a new audience from the ground up.
Art Appreciation in Schools
In addition to making art, learning and thinking critically about art in early childhood can have significant benefits for children. In numerous districts across California, pre-kindergarten teachers are using famous works of art to help young students think critically and creatively. Such lessons involve these 4 year olds to look at a Picasso or Cézanne, describe what they see, listen to others, and respond with their thoughts. This approach for young children was developed about 20 years ago by the co-founders of Visual Thinking Strategies, where it was originally utilized in museum settings. It was not until recently that schools began to incorporate visual thinking programs as well.
Several research studies have demonstrated that students in these programs are better able to understand visual images, accelerate faster in math and reading, and reveal higher social-emotional growth than students that did not go through the program. This was found to be particularly true for English language learners.
Visual Thinking Strategies relates to the skills required by the Common Core and develops a more holistic approach to thought processing. “As society becomes more digital, it’s not enough to just be able to read words; we have to be able to read images,” states Kim Morin, a professor at Fresno State University who teaches integrated art.
Critically thinking about artwork builds a vocabulary for young children and allows them to be more observational. Additionally, it has helped students to have polite conversation with other students in which they may disagree. Juliet James, a 2nd grade teacher at Old Adobe Elementary School in Petaluma states that her children will say “’I disagree with Karen because of this reason.’ They have to then give the evidence.”
Starting arts programs – whether that be physically making it or critically discussing it – at a young age has many advantages. Children do not have associations with what determines “good” versus “bad” art, allowing them to take more risk and not be inhibited by fear of failure. Visual thinking programs are also great to youngsters as they typically do not have preconceptions about what they are seeing and are able to have a deeper insight an artwork. Continuing to implement such programs can have great benefits for children, so let’s start getting the creative juices flowing early and continue to encourage them throughout all of childhood.