Arts programs are often the first victims of budget cuts, but there’s strong evidence that they’re vital for child development
BY MEAGHAN WRAY
Traditional wisdom might tell you education is all about reading, writing and arithmetic, but there’s another key element: the arts. And many Ontario students are missing out on them.
“A strong foundation in the arts advances a student’s intellectual and emotional ability to communicate with the world,” say Sasha Pinney, programming director at Mangled Studios, a Toronto art school. “Students deserve to have the opportunity to express their emotions, desires and ideas through whichever platform they feel necessary.”
But a recent report from People for Education, a public education advocacy organization, found only 46% of Ontario elementary schools have a music teacher (full- or part-time). The numbers are even more dismal for visual art and drama—only 16% of elementary schools that go through Grade 8 have a specialist visual arts teacher, and merely 8% have a specialist drama teacher. Access isn’t equal across the province, either. Schools with high levels of poverty tend to have fewer resources to put towards the arts, as do schools in northern and eastern Ontario. And kids can’t help but feel the shortage.
What’s worse, arts programs are typically the first victims of budget cuts. So even areas that currently have them can’t guarantee that they’ll be there for the long haul.
Luckily, there are people outside the classroom who are helping kids harness their creativity. In October, Scadding Court Community Centre, a United Way-funded agency, teamed up with OCAD to create the Toronto Cares (#TOCares) challenge in response to rising gun violence in Toronto and the GTA. The campaign encouraged local youth to share their feelings and reclaim the city using art. “Arts education is not only a means of self-expression and autonomy; it is more deeply rooted as an integral part of our cultural heritage,” says Munira Abukar, the centre’s development associate. “[It] means we allow ourselves to say what we feel political rhetoric sometimes cannot; it is a genuine chance for self-discovery and creating a passage for power in the person, which leads to power in the community.”
But programs like #TOCares can only do so much; the fact remains that when schools lose their music, visual art and drama programs, kids miss out. Here are five reasons why.
Arts education helps young people navigate their emotions
Kids with strong emotional skills—that is, the ability to express their feelings verbally, understand how others are feeling and show empathy—have healthier relationships, do better at school and are less likely to experience depression and anxiety. And one excellent way to build those skills? You guessed it: the arts. According to a 2015 study from Yale University, “observing, discussing and making art [helps] children build their emotion vocabulary, learn about the benefits and drawbacks of different emotion states, experience the fruits of taking an unconventional approach, and master what they have learned through hands-on activities.”
That’s something Pinney has seen first-hand. She works with kids aged seven to 14 in after-school fine arts programs and believes this educational foundation helps boost youths’ intellectual and emotional ability to communicate with the world. “Having a base understanding of art allows students to not only think creatively but also to expand upon, conceptualize and articulate alternative opinions and expressions freely,” she says. “Communication allows us to build and advance ourselves and our surroundings.” (Photography by Mangled Studios)
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Visual art improves math skills and may help with STEM careers
Research shows that making art boosts kids’ numeracy skills. For a 2015 study, Thai scientists had preschoolers complete art activities using plasticized clay. After six weeks, every child showed positive development in six basic skills: observation, categorization, comparison, classification, order arrangement and measurement. It has also been well established that creating visual art can boost children’s cognitive development (such as improving attention span and pattern recognition, and developing a better understanding of cause and effect), visual and spatial memory and fine motor skills.
It may not be an obvious connection, but there are overlaps between art and technology education that can benefit both types of learning. “STEM is a great program but the [Toronto District School Board] has failed to recognize the ability of an arts education to engage with science and math,” says Pinney. She gives an example from her lessons: “Just the other day, a painting needed to be stretched. That involved building, speculating and mathematically designing a wooden frame to wrap the painting around,” she says. “Art and design go hand-in-hand with engineering and technology.” (Photography by Mangled Studios)
Drama classes foster teamwork, confidence and social awareness
Witnessing the way others choose to express different emotions is just one way that drama classes can help teach young people how to sympathize with others. By interacting with other children in a dramatic context, kids can start learning about social interactions, empathy, sharing and conflict resolution. In other words, it’s a safe space for emotional development and learning how to work well with others.
For preschoolers, dramatic play can boost creativity and imagination, help develop communication skills, improve sensitivity and responsibility (thank you, group work!) and even improve gross motor skills, like coordination, flexibility and agility. Older kids—particularly those with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia—tend to see improvements in self-confidence and self-esteem. And participation isn’t the only way to benefit. A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Arkansas found even field trips to watch theatre “enhance[d] literary knowledge, tolerance, and empathy among students.”
Music helps brain development
A 2016 study by the University of Southern California Brain and Creativity Institute showed that exposing children to music early in life may help them develop language and reading skills. The five-year study found significant differences between the brains of kids who play musical instruments and those who don’t. The young musicians’ brains actually developed faster than their non-musical peers’—especially the parts responsible for language development, processing sound and reading skills.
Another study, this one published in Frontiers in Neuroscience in 2018, found that music improves kids’ cognitive skills, which lead to better grades. Researchers tracked 147 students at several Dutch schools to see what impact structured music lessons would have. After 2.5 years, students who received the music lessons had “significant cognitive improvements” in skills like planning, inhibition and memory. (Photography by Craig T. Mathew)
Art has stress-relieving properties—especially for kids who experience poverty
Eleanor Brown, professor of psychology and director of the Early Childhood Cognition and Emotions Lab at West Chester University, has been studying children who experience poverty for years, and she’s also seen first-hand what arts education can do. In a 2016 study published in Child Development, she broke it down: Preschoolers who are exposed to music, dance and visual art during the school year have lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, than those who don’t receive arts education. Even more importantly, the results aren’t instantaneous—the positive effects were only evident at the middle and end of the year. That means long-term, sustained arts education is good for body and soul, especially among the most vulnerable children in our communities.
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