Art & Executive Function

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Ask any parent, and they’ll tell you art projects are a great way of keeping kids occupied in a healthy way. Finger painting, sculpting clay, and drawing with crayons have been a part of early childhood education for as long as anyone can remember.

While almost all students are at least casually acquainted with arts and crafts from an early age, many parents and educators are not aware of some of the long-term benefits that they create. By its very nature, art is connected to creativity, but according to a number of studies, creating art is not only a great way of engaging students in core subjects, it also helps with executive functioning and neural development.

Whether we choose to focus on the more superficially apparent benefits or take a more scientific approach, the fact remains that students can gain a lot from having art included in their learning schedules. Other factors often concern the inherent value of art and artistic expression, but in this blog we’re going to focus on how art can affect academic performance and executive functioning,

EARLY DEVELOPMENT

Creativity

Creativity is important. Aside from creating new things such as art or writing, creative thinking is key when it comes to problem-solving. This is even more apparent in the long term; developing creativity can help students excel far beyond college, providing opportunities for the rest of their lives. Research has shown that children who have exposure to the arts from an early age have a greater ability to come up with original ideas and solutions as they get older.

Fine Motor Skills

One benefit that applies more to younger students is coordination. Learning how to hold a paintbrush, crayon, or pencil can be the first step toward developing good penmanship. Tracing, cutting along the dotted line, and coloring inside the lines all improve coordination, as do folding paper or shaping clay. 

Sensory Input

Varied stimulation is another positive that comes from art. While art certainly is not the only activity with this benefit (see our post about playing outdoors), it is a great way of engaging students’ brains with touch, sight, smell, and sound. This variety keeps their brains occupied and thinking without relying too heavily on one specific sense, which can be overwhelming, especially to younger students. Aside from being entertaining, a number of studies have found that this kind of stimulation helps kids’ neural functions develop better.

Executive Functioning

In a similar vein to what we’ve discussed so far, the relatively open-ended nature of art projects provides a perfect opportunity for students to consider options, make choices, and evaluate results. All of these are essential to the development of executive functioning skills, and giving students a relatively safe outlet for experimenting can help them get more comfortable with situations where there are no clear, step-by-step directions.

OTHER BENEFITS

Something that has gained a lot of popularity in the last 20 years is the use of art to help children process their environments. While the need for this is more apparent with people who have dealt with trauma of some sort, the reality is that it can be an extremely helpful tool for students in any situation. Facing or talking about emotions can be intimidating, and art provides a safe space for expression that’s great for children and adults alike.

Every day, students absorb incredible amounts of new information. While this is normal, they still need to be able to process what they learn in a nonthreatening way. Through artwork, students get to approach feelings and ideas in a “scaled-down” or more manageable way. This is often easier than finding the words to express how we are feeling, and can also be a good segue to other forms of open communication. \7

Similarly, since art is a universal language, creating art together creates a common ground between students as well as with parents and teachers. Whether this is in kindergarten or in college, being involved in art projects is an excellent icebreaker.

Final Notes

While important, some of the things we have discussed so far may seem to be more relevant to students in primary school, where art is already fairly common. We wouldn’t be exploring the issue properly without also talking about students in high school and even college.

A recent study conducted by the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, showed that involvement in the (both visual and performing) arts is linked to higher levels of achievement in both high school and college. Researchers also noted that studying the arts can be linked to things like being more involvemed in community service.

Another great bonus that comes along with continuing to include art classes in curriculum for high school and beyond is that the skills students gain from art classes make them more attractive to employers. Regardless of the field in which you want to work, now more than ever, employers are looking for people with a diverse skillset. Even basic familiarity with design software or even just having a well-developed aesthetic sensibility can be what makes one applicant stand out from others who are similarly qualified.

Regardless of how much value you place on Art as cultural goal of its own, the academic benefits are clear.

To learn more about how art can be great for students of all ages, check out these links:

 

Evan Weinberger

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