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The arts, such as music, painting and drawing, theatre and dance, involve a variety of activities that are developmentally significant for children—for example, paying attention, being motivated, regulating emotion and understanding others. We should ask, then, whether such arts activities can improve cognitive and social/emotional skills in children. After all, children like participating in the arts, though arts education is being cut back in many places.
Three researchers from the US, Thalia Goldstein of George Mason University, Matthew Lerner of Stony Brook University and Ellen Winner of Boston College, reviewed 21 studies involving children from 18 months to 17 years old, looking for robust evidence that the arts can improve cognitive and social/emotional development.
One challenge in studying the arts is the variety of ways in which arts education is provided—different levels of engagement of young people, different levels of teaching quality, formal or informal settings, and inside or outside the school.
Researchers has found that high school students who participate in the visual arts showed a greater improvement in geometry skills over two years than theatre students did.
Meanwhile, high school theatre students reported more empathy than students of the visual arts and music. They also displayed greater awareness of others’ beliefs, desires and intentions than music and visual arts students. Elementary school children who had participated in theatre work showed improved control of their emotions, both by self-report and laboratory observation.
Contrary to many published stories, music has not been linked to a higher IQ. But ensemble playing has found to be linked with more positive social behavior in four-year-olds. Another research project found that elementary school children who made music in a group showed greater awareness of others’ beliefs, desires and intentions than children who participated in a group that did not involve making music together.
Theatre has been used among children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and is linked to better social skills in the months afterwards. When peers who do not have ASD are also involved in the theatre activity, the quality and quantity of interaction between them and the ASD children improves and the ASD children have better social and cognitive outcomes.
Thus a strong case can be made for developing the arts specifically as a tool for child development, and this is happening in places. But the field is new and needs a lot more research and experimentation, the researchers said.
Goldstein TR, Lerner MD & Winner E (2017), The arts as a venue for developmental science: realizing a latent opportunity, Child Development 88.5