Opinion

Remembering the Value of an Arts Education

(photo by Luis Calçada, via Flickr)
(photo by Luis Calçada, via Flickr)

Ask a contemporary college student about their average day, and they’ll probably tell you they spend it multitasking. Classes here, academic clubs there, maybe a fraternity/sorority event, and then of course community service. No surprises there. But what might be a surprise is that this sort of hectic, multi-event schedule has increasingly become a reality for children’s daily lives, too.

Children’s play time (and lack thereof) has become a point of contention. An essay by psychologist Peter Gray has been making the rounds, looking at the role of play in children’s lives.  “Do we need more people who are good at memorising answers to questions and feeding them back?” he writes. “Schools were designed to teach people to do those things, and they are pretty good at it.” Another essay in The Atlantic bemoaned the writer’s daughter’s homework schedule, which had her averaging 6.5 hours of sleep, with few opportunities for creative exercises. Even Dear Abby is fielding questions about too much homework.

As Gray and so many others point out, play has a critical role to play in fostering creative thinking, empathy, and healthy social skills over time. It’s hard to imagine the fantastical adventures of a comic series like Calvin & Hobbes existing in a homework-heavy environment. Hobbes would wallow away in a corner while Calvin stayed up all night preparing for another algebra test after soccer practice. It might be hard in an educational system that values structured time to argue for the opposite, but maybe we can at least argue for a structure that encourages more play. Art classes could be part of that.

There’s so much research to back up the value of arts learning. Americans for the Arts points to a number of studies, including one that looked at how an arts education benefited children up to age eight, because it channeled what they already do, which is play:

We know that “art,” understood as spontaneous creative play, is what young children naturally do — singing, dancing, drawing, and role-playing. We also know that the arts engage all the senses and involve a variety of modalities including the kinesthetic, auditory, and visual. When caregivers engage and encourage children in arts activities on a regular basis from early in life, they are laying the foundation for — and even helping wire children’s brains for — successful learning.

Another article, this one in Edutopia, points to programs around the country, from Dallas to New York to Minneapolis, that have begun reversing an overall trend to decrease arts education. And the overall benefits are articulated well in this list from the Washington Post: everything from creative-thinking skills to learning how to receive constructive feedback and working in teams. 

In many ways, we live in a golden age of creativity. Many young people spend their time online posting GIFs, photos, memes, music mixes, and YouTube rants. The internet has revealed the creativity we all have, and new technologies have lowered the barrier of entry for participation. But just like a doodle in a notebook (and what artist wasn’t reprimanded in grade school for doodling in their notebook?), these forms of creativity need to be recognized as a vital part of how we play and interact and become, well, more human. Standardized testing and rote learning have their place, but let’s not forget the arts and creativity, too.

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