The Importance of Art in Schools: It’s not just about holiday crafts

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 The importance of art in schools

Art has many meanings. There is  art of the museums, art of the impressionists and art of the Renaissance. There is art of full color reproductions and coffee table art books.. This art is mainly for the cultural elite. This post is  about the importance of art in schools. Not at the college level where you go for a solid liberal arts education, but art for children. The importance of art at the preschool and elementary school level in the schools itself. Art education has unfortunately  taken lots of hits and cuts and there is little understanding as to why it is such a loss to remove art from the school curriculum.

The powers that be, that have cut art education from the school curriculum, obviously do so because of a lack of understanding as to its importance. They think of it as frivolous, time wasting and just some fun for the kids. What they don’t realize is that a good art program is not only about children expressing themselves, which in itself is a wonderful thing, but It is a way of helping the children in more ways than they can imagine.

I personally don’t believe that the art history that is part of the art education in schools is as vital to the children as much as the real art that only a good art teacher can do with the children. Art history is just another subject that the children learn and memorize but, as far as developing skills, that is left to the good art in education that you find in some of the better schools.

Before diving into a discussion of the importance of art in the early childhood classroom it is important to note that  creative people as a whole are known to be more independent, autonomous, self sufficient, emotionally sensitive, assertive, self accepting, resourceful, adventurous and risk taking.The discipline that best helps develops these qualities is art education.

Art in preschool and art in elementary school is very different.

The importance of art in preschool

Most early childhood programs have some sort of art in their classrooms or day care centers. That should be a great thing. However, a large majority of these early childhood programs have the typical, copycat, coloring pages type of art. A holiday rolls around and out comes the pumpkin coloring pages or the crafts that  come out looking all the same.

This is not the kind of art that the children get  benefit from. It is only busy work that is often more detrimental than beneficial.

It is very important  to be aware of  children’s developmental needs in preschool so you can know what kinds of activities they are capable of at these young ages. Many teachers try to give children art that they are not ready for at  their age or any age. Very young preschoolers are really only capable of process only art. This means they start off by learning how to use the materials like crayons, paint, glue and paper. They spend lots of time learning about the materials and what they can do with them without being able or interested in making any kinds of craft projects.

So what is so important about art in preschool if this is all the little children do with the materials?

Children earn through their senses. Before they use a material the way it was intended to be used they need to learn about it through their senses. They need to smell it and touch it and maybe even taste it before they are ready to make something with it. That is why process only art it so important in the preschool years.

Young children are not very verbal and get to know the world first through their senses before they can be verbal,

The greater the opportunity they get to work with sensory materials, the greater opportunity will there be to gain an awareness of all of their senses which  in turn gives them a greater opportunity for learning  about the world in general.

Children also use art to make symbols that they use for representation before they can even write. This helps them develop more concepts and to relate to their environment and the external world. It is also becoming much more obvious that when children spend time manipulating form and shape in art that is connected to his own experience, that it is a necessary prerequisite to working with words and numbers.

Art is also a great way for children toe express themselves, especially since they are not very verbal.As they work with art materials they give vent to various emotions of joy, excitement, fear and anything else they may be feeling.

Child express their  thoughts, feelings when painting and drawing. Their drawings and painting also show their knowledge of the environment by what they paints and draw.

Art in preschool is supposed to do a few other things as well, It is supposed to help the children develop self confidence and self esteem. If  you hear a young  boy say “I can’t draw” you will know that that child probably spent much of his time on coloring pages for boys and interference from adults in general.

Art is also supposed to help children develop thinking and problem solving skills along with initiative.

Almost all of the really young children’s art should be process only art where they process is what is important as opposed to the product. Really young children don’t need to make products, they need to make art.

AS they get a bit older they can move to more product based art activities.

As it’s been said art education is the  process while fine arts is results oriented.

There has been a great interest in recent years to learning about the theories of the  Reggio Emilia  approach method which uses art as a means for the children to communicate about their learning and brings the importance of art in preschools to a new level.

The importance of art education in elementary school

The importance of art in the preschool has been much easier to implement than the importance of art education in the elementary school. In preschool its all about sensory experiences and building up the child.

In elementary school the thread continues. Even though the children are more into creating product over process, the basic goal is to develop the ability to create product with what skills he has without following another’s patterns and models and relying on other external rewards. The courage to create something new gives a sense of satisfaction and personal involvement that makes it meaningful and worthwhile.

The importance of GOOD art programs in schools cannot be understated. If they are of the more traditional sort  like a series of random cookie cutter projects then these programs  will not help kids think divergently,  explore alternate solutions to problems and won’t encourage risk taking in a flexible way.

When it comes down to it, art helps kids learn.

Once children move out of the early childhood years and are getting more into other subjects like math, science, social studies and history, art can be used to enhance all of the other subjects as good art is used to enhance the curriculum. Art illuminates the study of these other disciplines and learning these other disciplines help in art as well

When I was a graduate student at Bank Street College of Education there was a wonderful book I read when  taking my Art  for Teachers course. It was called “An Experiment in Education” by a woman named Sybil Marshall. Ms Marshall  died in 2005 at the age of 91. The book itself was printed in 1963 in England and tells of Ms. Marshalls experiences  in working with children in very remote rural locations, using art as a basis for her educational philosophy.

There were many ages grouped together and children learned according to their level.

I would like to share with you some of the things I learned from Ms. Marshall and if you choose  you can choose  to read An Experiment in Education yourself, it’s a great read.

Sybil Marshall believed that the first prerequisite of a good teacher is to know what she/he is trying to teach. As a result one needs to be actively involved in always educating yourself and then to have the ability to judge which part of the knowledge you gained is suitable for the children.

The second prerequisite would be to be able to pass on this knowledge in as few words as possible. There are still too many she says that regard “to talk” and “to teach” as synonymous.

One needs to know the place of arts in education as a whole and there is no limit to the variety of subjects the children will tackle with complete confidence if their early experiences with art is free enough.

Courage and enthusiasm will take them places you never dreamed of. It is essential to grasp all of the ideas that make learning more interesting and more easily assimilated and then by teaching children through the means of art this will open doors to the children that may not have been opened to them previously.

Children have a natural gift for expressing themselves in art form and will paint as naturally as they talk or move if they are allowed to. One cannot tell children however “paint what you like” as it can be terrifying to select just one thing from all of their experiences. Kids come from a Reggio Emilia background will be much more proficient in using the art materials than kids from a more traditional background.

You need to be able to help the children by guiding them without being too restrictive.There are children that begin with free exploration and have lots of experiences with art they then will have the confidence to plunge right in when told to paint what they like if the materials are enticing enough. Others need more guidance.

The search for the right kind of subjects is the teachers job but pretty soon the children will be working alongside the teacher with ideas of their own. When the children are illustrating a story they need to pinpoint which moment in the story to they want to catch.

One of the most important points that she stresses in the book is that things that really matter are that because of what we teach children, they become interested enough to go on wanting to know and because of how we teach children they learn to think for themselves and have confidence in their own judgment.

By incorporating art into our educational curriculum we are thereby causing the children to love learning more and to want to keep learning.

 Some other important reasons for art education

A successful art program in the schools depends heavily on the teacher of the program. If she or he does the job well then they will find a number of things.

  • Many students learn best visually and art helps them remember all kind of facts
  • Art is an intellectual exercise  that requires constant decision making and is constantly developing kids problems solving and critical thinking skills.
  • Art is a great way for  children to practice failing as failing in  in art is not as dangerous as it is to fail in other areas
  • Art accommodates all learning styles which encourages diversity.
  • Art becomes the children’s way of knowing the world. We are constantly being addressed in our world in the “language of art” and if we don’t have the children study this then they will miss much information. The more fluent they are in this visual language the more they learn about their world, society and themselves
  • We are visual consumers. We therefor,  need tools that will allow us to intelligently interpret and judge what we see in our world. Art helps us do that.
  • Good art programs often have the children doing research for their projects which helps the learn to do research for the many other disciplines that they will have to do research for.
  • By learning about concepts in art like pattern, color, form  shape and balance they learn that these concepts are also common to math, science, music, poetry, and economics and often have meaning throughout a broad range of topics.
  • Children who study the arts its been proven do better in tests like the SAT’s. This makes sense if we say that art helps children develop critical thinking skills and problems solving capabilities.

Aside from all of the cognitive benefits the children get from having art in school there is the importance of expression and being able to give vent to their feelings. It may not be as therapeutic as  art therapy for kids but both art  therapy and creativity are about solving problems, finding new solutions to old of ways of thinking, feeling and interacting so they get all of these benefits as well.

There are also many children who come from good art programs that decide to make a career in the arts. There are many opportunities and the image of the starving artist in the garret is not quite as prevalent as it once was. There is computer graphics, animation for television, web design, crafts that can be sold at crafts fairs , medical illustration, architecture and  book illustration are just a few of the fields that children can have in the arts.

How art in schools helps with affective education

Affective education is what’s describes as  the handling of issues like ethics, tolerance, general behaviors like cheating, lying, harassment, violence and bigotry in schools.

The way art can  help deal with affective education is by the subtle and not so subtle messages that come out through the study of art and the different cultures surrounding it.

One of the issues that is learned in art is the issue of distortion. What does it mean to distort colors, do all people have the same pigment like melanin and how different cultures have different standards of beauty. The children that study this come to accept that cultures have different, but valid outlooks from each other and they are all worthy of respect.

They learn to make judgements based on knowledge as opposed to prejudice.

They develop self confidence to defend their personal decisions and find that there are acceptable ways to express anger, fear and rebellion and not through violence.

They learn that true feelings of self worth come from meeting and overcoming obstacles and challenges. They learn that with hard work and proper instruction that they can do anything.

So if you add up all of the concepts I talked about in this post, it is quite clear that having a good art education program in school is not just a nice extra, it is a truly important part of the school curriculum.

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