Watch any child play for just five minutes and you’re sure to see them engage in some form of artistic expression. Children use sticks to draw pictures in the sand and sing along to their favorite songs. They dress up to pretend they’re kings and queens and tap on empty boxes to generate music. In fact, in a recent paper published in The Journal of Child Development, The Arts as a Venue for Developmental Science: Realizing a Latent Opportunity, the authors describe art as a “central pursuit of childhood.”
Arts education advocates have long called attention to the positive effects arts engagement has on children, especially how it can increase student educational and lifelong success. Research has shown that arts programs and arts-integrated instruction can improve skills like critical thinking, perseverance, self-discipline, collaboration, and communication which in turn have been shown to have a significant impact on student achievement.
The authors of this new study, however, argue that the current body of research is insufficient. They urge developmental scientists to engage in more thorough investigations of how such “naturalistic activities” can impact child development. They argue that “such study will not only help arts advocates discover the effects of engagement in the arts but will also enrich our understanding of development” more generally. They call for future studies to look beyond formalized arts programs to focus on artistic activities that occur spontaneously as part of play (e.g., drawing, singing songs, making up plays). In short, arts engagement is so natural and commonplace that further study will be able to tell us much more about how and why children learn the way they do.
Better understanding the impact of arts engagement on skills, habits, and mindsets for success, and in turn on a child’s long term personal, educational, and professional success, bolsters the case for learning environments infused with arts-based learning. A number of research studies have documented the impressive impact of skills for success on student academic achievement. For example, in a longitudinal study of 140 eighth-grade students, it was self-discipline that predicted final grades, school attendance, standardized test scores and selection into a competitive high school program the following spring. And in a study that evaluated the social-emotional skills of more than 9,000 incoming kindergartners, researcher found that those students considered “not ready” for kindergarten were up to 80 percent more likely to have been retained or require special education services; and up to seven times more likely to be suspended or expelled at least once by the fourth grade.
Notably, similar to the research on arts engagement, large bodies of research show that learning through play also serves to strengthen the same set of critical skills, habits, and mindsets like executive function (including self-regulation and ability to pay attention) and social adeptness. In fact, there is so much overlap between arts engagement and play-based learning activities that it’s no surprise engagement in these activities have very similar effects on children’s learning and development.
Why does this matter? Well, there is evidence that today’s kindergarten has dramatically increased in academic rigor through teacher-led tasks, severely limiting opportunities for children to engage in student-directed, free play. And, in an era of standardized tests, calls for widespread change to incorporate more opportunities for playful learning have largely fell on deaf ears. But, if early childhood advocates and arts advocates could band together to create a stronger, more unified message about the importance of creating opportunities for social-emotional and other skill development from the early years through elementary school, maybe there is an opportunity to put play back into the lives of our youngest learners.
Unfortunately, in most districts there is a divide between early childhood education and the formal K-12 school system, despite the best efforts of early childhood advocates to better link them. As a result, the play-based curricula that children enjoy in many pre-K programs come to a sudden halt when they enter kindergarten. Given the overwhelming research about the importance of play in the development of skills for success and the link between these skills and later achievement, school systems should find ways to fully embrace — rather than limiting classroom time for — arts education and the play-based strategies that are central in early childhood education.