Recently I was asked to give a talk on why art is important to children. The research on the benefits of arts education is so far reaching, it was hard to know where to begin. When a child creates, they are quite literally nourishing their entire being.
First, the arts draw on a range of intelligences – not just linguistic, logical and mathematical intelligences upon which most schools are based. Arts education stimulates and develops the imagination. It refines cognitive, creative and critical thinking skills. It strengthens problem solving.
Arts education heightens children’s self-esteem; it makes them feel good about what they have to say and how they say it. It increases the motivation to learn, and also creates cultural and historical awareness.
Arts education teaches children life skills – such as working co-operatively, articulating a vision, and thinking outside the box. Very importantly, children develop the ability to imagine what might be instead of only what is. A child begins with a blank piece of paper, adds a line, a colour, another line, another colour. Suddenly there is a house, a park, a community, two faces smiling at each other, holding hands, reaching for the sun. Out of nothing a child creates something. This is a profoundly valuable habit of mind and imagination – the key to creating new solutions to old problems, to facing the many challenges of the future.
Art also promotes the idea that there is more than one solution to a problem, more than one answer to a question. It therefore nurtures experiences of tolerance and empathy. While in math, 2 and 2 will forever equal 4, in art, in painting for instance, red, yellow and blue equal as many responses as there are children in the class and every single response is correct and it is good and it is deemed worthy. When a child paints a picture, molds a shape out of clay, they are developing their understanding of what it means to be human, they are learning to make meaning of their world and of themselves.
All these most fundamental skills nourished at a young age have profound effects on them as adults, regardless of the vocation a child might choose. This is some of the most surprising research for those who think that we must choose between science and art.
Finally of course, there is the element of joy – there is joy, fun, passion, creative fulfillment and a sense of personal freedom in making art. It is the kind of learning we must always safeguard.