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The Seriousness of a Child at Play

by Andrew Swensen

Creativity. Invention. Free play of the imagination. Such are the hallmarks of the arts at their finest moments.

So too are they the hallmarks of childhood.

The arts share much with the very best of childhood. To introduce a child to the arts in so many ways is nothing less than feeding the best part of their growing minds. It cultivates their sense of exploration and wonder, their yearning to create new worlds of bright palettes and rich sounds. The arts give voice and vision to young dreams and embolden those whose very nature lies in wonder, exploration and discovery.

Parents and children working together on an arts activity (Photo: Carnegie Museum of Art)

I find it curious that we so often need to justify arts education and arts experiences for our young people. The arts meet children where they already live and celebrate all the virtues that we praise in childhood. These virtues in turn translate into much of what we celebrate in adulthood, especially under the label of “innovation.” I suppose it is inevitable – and not necessarily a bad thing – that we assess the value of our curriculum in youth education, and in doing so we analyze outcomes. So often these outcomes are measured in terms of applied education, that is, in terms of how an education will be used in some function later in life. Fair enough. The arts community responds justifiably by demonstrating the correlation between education in music and visual arts to improved performance in reading and mathematics. Fair enough again.

Yet how does one teach imagination and creativity? How does one equip a mind to think of what has never before been conceived? This is precisely the warp and weft of the arts.

Probe a bit further. In considering the role of the arts in a child’s life and looking for measurable outcomes (how we love measurable outcomes in all things!), we shall surely find ourselves at a loss for finding a measure to fashioning that which simply did not exist yesterday. What is the mean, median and standard deviation of a new story read at bedtime? Or, consider some questions that do have answers but not so easily measured ones. What is the breadth and depth of a new melody? What is the net present value of painting a new picture?

How big is a new idea?

These are the endeavors that prompt minds to grow creatively. Furthermore, while we are busy trying to measure the value of the arts in extrinsic terms, we neglect the fact that such extrinsic and observable events may well be the consequences of intrinsic benefits defying measurement entirely. Differently stated, there may simply be no standardized test on how much a child loves to write a story, paint a picture, or play an instrument; and yet there certainly is developmental and intellectual value to that moment, a value not provided by any other activity.

Music in the life of a child (Photo: Lynn Johnson)

This value carries forward throughout adulthood in the form of vibrant arts and culture in our communities. It has been well documented that most adult arts patrons have their first arts encounter in childhood, which is to say that exposure of children now begets the artists and arts patrons of 20 years hence (cf. Gifts of the Muse by McCarthy et al, to name one example). It is also well documented that a vibrant arts community represents part of the fabric of a healthy society. If we consider my beloved hometown of Pittsburgh, it is celebrated time and again in national publications for its quality of life, for its “livability,” and its appeal as a travel destination. Consistently those articles cite the arts in their justification for those conclusions, usually early in the narrative. If one contemplates why Pittsburgh has earned this very desirable attention, then I know who holds a good deal of the responsibility: some group of art and music teachers from 20 or more years ago. When we as adults look back at childhood, we celebrate those moments of invention and unbridled energy cultivated in us by arts educators.

There is another benefit to all of this. In engaging children in the arts and supporting their experiences in arts education, we as adults may grow. Heraclitus once wrote, “Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.” There is much wisdom in these words. In helping our children in the arts – our neighbors’ children, our grandchildren, nieces and nephews – we may in that gesture find the moment when we are most truly ourselves.


Related articles from The Muse Dialogue:

Children and the Arts,” by Elyssa Jechow

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

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

Resources, venues and arts activities for families in Pittsburgh

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rick St. John #

    Amen, Andrew. Not everything that counts can be easily counted. — Rick

  2. I love your musings on creativity and have shared them on my blog.


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