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Children and the Arts

by Elyssa Jechow

The arts historically carry a certain stigma in society – a pleasure for the elite, an abstract subject that only the highly educated can appreciate. As society progresses, though, we must recognize one of the most important values of the arts. We must not deny the invaluable potential that putting arts in the lives of young people can have. More and more, it is imperative that we gain an understanding of just how integral the arts are in basic education.

Gateway to the Arts teaching artist Wendy Osher facilitates a discussion students at Hance Elementary as part of a *Gateway Arts in Education Residency* focusing on “Migration Blues,” a quilt made by artist Tina Brewer. (Photo: Gateway to the Arts)

We can begin to understand this idea if we think about education and learning at its most basic levels. We teach the youngest children with media like story-telling, finger painting, and dramatic play – not as deliberate efforts to make every child an artist, but as straightforward, understandable teaching mechanisms that generate the best responses. It is intuitive that we would teach the youngest children with the methods that they respond to the most effectively. Now, wouldn’t it seem make sense to continue educating older students with that same logic?

According to the College Entrance Examination Board, in 1995, SAT scores for students who studied the arts more than four years were 59 points higher on the verbal and 44 points higher on the math portion than students with no coursework or experience in the arts.

So why not look further into how an arts education can positively mold a student?

Maybe because the arts are not entirely definable, they are lumped outside the realm of rigorous subjects, when in fact, they are “intellectual disciplines of substance.” According to Eloquent Evidence: Arts at the Core of Learning, “Art teachers daily ask their students to engage in learning activities which require use of higher-order thinking skills like analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.” Studies have shown that literacy skills are improved by exposure to integrated arts in education, and that “exploring and discussing art helps children organize thoughts and develop logical, creative thinking…(Murfee).”

Test scores aside, an understanding of the arts benefits a student beyond the academic realm. Young people with an appreciation for the arts are often found to have greater cognitive skills, and to have higher self-esteem. “Improved self-esteem, perceptions of school, and respect for others are other positive benefits of art exposure. With a greater self-concept, students are more likely to be curious about others –“Cultural studies challenge students to respond to the world, and to look beyond themselves and to see the connectedness of human society. The arts foster understanding of other cultures, their histories, symbols, myths, values, and beliefs” (Murfee). Though programs in schools prove to be invaluable assets in cultivating an early appreciation for the arts, the message can be brought home – literally. Parents have the potential to be a child’s main gateway into a lifetime of arts appreciation.

In Pittsburgh, as well as around the nation, arts programming geared toward the younger demographic, and designed for family participation, is experiencing immense popularity for a number of reasons. In the minds of many parents, it is becoming increasingly preferable to other forms of entertainment, programming is being designed to be affordable, and there is now plenty of opportunity for entire families to participate in arts-related activities. “There’s something about being in a room with people and watching your child experience live theater,” says Stephen Sunderlin, of New York City’s Vital Theatre Company. The group, in addition to the New Victory Theater, and others in New York, is creating affordable shows expressly committed to garnering an appreciation for theatre in young audiences. New Victory Theatre presents shows such as “The Berenstein Bears Live! In Family Matters, the Musical” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” with the intent to provide shows recognizable to parents and stimulating for children. “So much of what kids see on television, unfortunately, is a little bit mind-numbing,” notes Rose Caiola, producer and co–book-writer of “Freckleface Strawberry: The Musical” (also penned by actress Julianne Moore. The show enjoyed a successful off-Broadway run).

Children in the Galleries of the Carnegie Museum of Art (Photo: Carnegie Museum of Art)

Likewise, the need for stimulating arts-related programs in Pittsburgh has led to a flourishing culture of activities for children and families. Well-known organizations like the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts offer classes in everything from filmmaking to printmaking, to fiber arts, and writing. It also offers art camps, open studios for teens, and even family workshops. In addition, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh offers exhibitions as well as classes, designed to engage children in the arts. “Tough Art,” is described as being an annual exhibition of “original, interactive works ‘tough’ enough to withstand kid handling.” Other outstanding exhibits, such as the International Heritage Photographic Experience Exhibition rotate through the museum’s offerings. Also noteworthy are the offerings of the Carnegie Museum of Art. Family activities like “ARTVentures and “My City in Pictures” provide interactive experiences for entire families to enhance their arts experiences. There are also a multitude of youth classes available throughout the year.

These are just a few sampling of the offerings available to Pittsburghers interested in being involved in a family arts experience. For the parent interested in cultivating an appreciation for the arts in his or her children, the opportunities abound, and it only takes a little bit of searching to find the right fit.

It will take the combined efforts of parents being active in a child’s upbringing, and schools taking the strides to provide quality arts education to integrate the arts and the benefits they provide into the life of every child.

So what’s the main point, you might say, in having children and teenagers who appreciate art? We can’t go around just participating in high culture all the time, commenting on this statue or that painting, throwing paint at canvases as we please or blowing on a saxophone in the office… No, but studies show that the arts prepare students for jobs, and that creative thinkers do well in the workplace. In recent years, skill requirements in the workplace have gone up, and, “In the modern business environment, the ability to communicate, adapt, diagnose problems and find creative solutions is more important than ever before” (Murfee). Skills developed in an arts-based education, like communications, analysis, and synthesis are highly valued in professionals. Employers also find other foundation skills like problem solving and exercising individual responsibility to be great assets in individuals. Finally, those who are educated in the concepts of diversity and multiculturalism, a main focus of an arts education, are more likely to understand the culture of today’s highly diversified and globalized workplace.

All that said, we could take the arts for what they have traditionally been valued as: beautiful, sometimes not beautiful, items to ponder, words to, contemplate, or notes to absorb. We must, however, go a step farther and see the arts as a practical and necessary teaching tool, as a means to achieve academic and practical skills, and as a lens through which we can see beauty in the diversity that surrounds us.

For the Pittsburgher interested in venues mentioned in this article (and others!), visit our page composed for the current issue of TMD: Resources, venues and arts activities for families in Pittsburgh.

Works Cited

Kennedy, Mark. “New musical for kids: An N.Y.C. growth industry.” Washington Post 7 August, 2011. Print.

Murfee, Elizabeth. “Eloquent Evidence: Arts at the Core of Learning.” 1995. PDF file.


Related articles from The Muse Dialogue

The Seriousness of a Child at Play,” by Andrew Swensen

The Artistry of Parenthood,” by Andrew Swensen and Katherine Leisen

The Pavlova Effect: An Argument for Equal Access to Arts Education,” by Michelle Van Doeren

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