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Natural Awakenings National

Artful Kids: Hands-On Creativity Nurtures Mind, Body and Spirit

Aug 31, 2011 10:10AM ● By Judith Fertig

Kids’ active participation in the creative arts helps them develop physically, men- tally, emotionally and socially—whether they are painting, drawing, shaping pottery, performing in plays or musicals, dancing, storytelling, or making music. Studies culled by educators at Arizona’s Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts confirm the multiple benefits, ranging from higher SAT scores to increases in self-esteem and improved ability to handle peer pressure.

Yet, with shrinking school budgets, cutting back on what are considered non-core subjects such as music and art is the path that many school districts are forced to take, explains Anne Bryant, Ph.D., executive director of the National School Boards Association. Communities, in turn, must find new ways to counter this new financial reality. For example, an elementary school music or art teacher, once devoted to a single school, now may have to travel to several throughout a district.

“Schools are under so much pressure due to dwindling resources and the No Child Left Behind legislation that sometimes the children who most need the arts are put in remedial classes instead,” says Susan Tate, a former teacher who is now executive director of Kansas’ Lawrence Arts Center.

Add in our digital culture—where hands-on most often means a computer keyboard or phone-texting device—and domestic situations in which busy parents aren’t keen to clean up messy finger paints and other craft supplies, and the result is, “These days, kids also are less likely to do hands-on art at home,” adds Tate.

At young ages, children are likely to be more passive than active learners, says Sharon Burch, a music educator in Mystic, Iowa. They may listen, for example, to whatever tunes their parents play, instead of simpler, more age-appropriate songs. Burch has helped fill the need by providing interactive Freddie the Frog resources for use by parents, as well as in music classrooms.Benefits of art for kids

Fortunately, communities across the country have rallied to offer afterschool and weekend arts and crafts programs. Many simple arts participation activities are easy for parents, grandparents and caregivers to do along with the kids.

Developing Mental Abilities

“Current studies of brain imaging and mapping show that the active making of music creates synapses in all four parts of the brain,” Burch says. By active, she means physically tapping out a rhythm with sticks, singing a song, dancing to a beat, marching, playing patty-cake or engaging in other age-appropriate, physical movement. “To really light up the brain, you have to do something, not just passively listen.” Making music helps kids think, create, reason and express themselves, adds Burch.

Practicing the art of simple storytelling, as well as having adults regularly reading children’s literature with youngsters, can also have a profound impact. A 2003 study published in the American Educator, based on exhaustive research by Ph.D. psychologists Todd Risley and Betty Hart, showed that by age 4, a huge gap in vocabulary skills exists between children of different economic levels. Those growing up in a household of educated, professional people hear a cumulative 32 million more spoken words (1,500 more per hour) during these early years—and thus have a greater vocabulary—than those from welfare families. The researchers further documented more than five times the instances of encouraging feedback.

They discovered a direct correlation between the intensity of these early verbal experiences and later achievement. Risley and Hart attributed the meaningful difference to the increased interaction—more storytelling, reading and parent-child discussions—that typically takes place in more affluent households.

Arts allows kids to use their imaginationFiring Imagination

“Our culture is so linear and lingually driven that it often doesn’t tap into the vastness of a child’s imagination,” observes Anne Austin Pearce, assistant professor of communication and fine art at Missouri’s Rockhurst University. Pearce often works with school children through library events that couple art and storytelling. “Also, there’s pressure to measure results in a culture that tends to label you either a winner or a loser, but art is not quantifiable in that way; art allows kids to develop ideas through the creative process that they can’t do any other way.

“When kids are drawing, they often talk as they are doing it,” she says. “You can then engage in a different kind of conversation with kids, just letting things happen and asking open questions. Kids tell their own stories.”


Kids that study and perform at least one of the arts such as dance, playing an instrument or acting in a play, “... will have an edge up that’s so critical as an adult,” concludes Verneda Edwards, executive director of curriculum and instruction for the Blue Valley School District, near Kansas City. “Kids not only benefit academically by engaging in the arts, they also have the ability to get up in front of people and perform. That builds increasing confidence.”

Judith Fertig celebrates the craft of cooking at AlfrescoFood


Local Community Arts Resources

Many communities offer arts programs for children of all ages and income levels. Libraries offer free read-along story times and opportunities to engage in crafts, illustrate stories and dance. This past summer, libraries across the country—from the Ephrata Public Library, in Pennsylvania, to the Mercer Island Library, in Washington state—utilized the theme of One World, Many Stories for their youth arts activities.

Kindermusik, an international program with local affiliates, offers age-appropriate classes for newborns through age 7. If a child feels more kinship with Jack Black than Johann Sebastian Bach, then singing or playing guitars, drums or a keyboard might be the ticket at a nearby School of Rock program location. Private music, dance, art, pottery and theatre classes also are becoming popular activities for kids and their families.

At community arts centers such as the Lawrence Arts Center, in Kansas, kids of all ages pull on a shirt or a smock and get busy with Mudpie Madness (working with clay), 3D Mania (sculpting with different materials) or building up their own painting and montage portfolios. At the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, in Indiana, preschoolers enjoy watching and participating in weekly plays, stories and songs—all using finger puppets.

Community colleges, such as one in Alvin, Texas, offer arts classes like Picasso Pizzazz, encouraging kids in grades one through six to create their own masterpieces. Kids can Dance, Dance, Dance! in the Kids on Campus arts program at Bucks County Community College, in Bristol, Pennsylvania, or take ballet or cartooning lessons in year-round classes through Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn, New York.

Local parks and recreation departments are other good resources for youth arts participation activities. Iowa’s Orange City Parks & Recreation Department, for example, offers Zip, Zap, Zog! Exploring Theatre, giving kids the chance to improvise with drama games, as well as develop acting and speaking skills.

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