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The Arts as an Opportunity for Psychological Research

It is amazing to me to see how school districts and psychologists who study child development focus only on things such as memory, math, reading or writing and completely ignore the arts. Children love the arts and engage in the arts naturally. Art is a UNIVERSAL language that everybody speaks and understands and each form of art, be it visual or performing, helps us develop different skills which are useful in our society. For example, a child with Autism can express his emotions much easier with art, or a naturally shy child can have better social skills by studying acting. Artists, teaching artists, teachers, parents and arts advocates have long claimed extensive and dramatic positive changes as a result of engaging in the arts. How can such positive changes be scientifically studied and presented to policy makers, boards of education, and other researchers? Read this article to learn more.

The Arts as an Opportunity for Psychological Research

Kids engage in the arts naturally! How can we study it?

Children love the arts. And engagement in the arts is a universal part of development. Children all over the world create visual art, using sticks and dirt if needed. Pretend play, which can be considered a type of proto-drama, is seen even in cultures where it is not promoted by adults. Music and dance are an integral part of every culture, and children quickly become engaged in both types of activities. Yet participation in the arts is rarely studied in developmental psychology, particularly when compared to other developments of childhood such as reading, numbers, memory, etc.

In a just published article in Child Development (which I co-authored with the fantastic Matthew Lerner(link is external) and Ellen Winner(link is external)), we lay out the various reasons, possible problems, and new research on child development and the arts. But in particular, we tie how children’s engagement in arts (as it is already happening in the world) can be linked in to research questions that developmental psychology researchers are interested in. This paper was part of an upcoming special section in the journal Child Development, entitled “Bringing Developmental Science into the World” (edited byRoberta Golinkoff(link is external), Kathy Hirsh-Pasek(link is external), Rachel Grob(link is external), and Mark Schlesinger(link is external))

This combination of developmental science and art is critical, and must be done carefully. Critical because support for the arts is always under attack (see the most recent versions of federal budgets), and each year seems to be bring less access to arts education and the arts for children (this is particularly true for low income areas). And yet, artists, teaching artists, teachers, and parents and arts advocates have long claimed extensive and dramatic positive changes as a result of engaging in the arts. How can such positive changes be scientifically studied and presented to policy makers, boards of education, and other researchers? This is where a need to be careful comes in. Arguments that are not based on evidence fall apart. And by evidence, I mean of course scientific evidence, well done rigorous studies, but also evidence that is based on actual engagement in the arts. If an artist cannot recognize the activities behind the psychological study, or a psychologist cannot recognize the psychological theory behind an artistic activity, than the two disciplines are not integrating well.

The arts provide a strong latent opportunity to study development within a real world context because child engagement in art has developed independently of the science of development. This means not only looking what has historically been the most popular way of justifying the arts (i.e. through increased test scores as a result of engaging in the arts, where most findings are simple correlations), but also looking at activities that are intrinsic to engagement in the arts. Such activities are individualized: by art form (visual arts skills are different than theatre skills) and by level of engagement (serious amateurs in high school work differently than kindergarten classrooms). Importantly, the question of talent in an art form itself is different than investigating what may be happening as a result (called transfer) of engagement in an art form.

We lay out three types of research programs that are doing a good job of combining the art and the science of development:

  1. Intrinsic Studies. In this work, researchers are investigating what is actually happening in an art form that could be considered a psychological skill or ability. The gold standard for this work is a book and study by Hetland, Winner, Veenema, Sheridan & Perkins, entitled “Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education”. In this book, the researchers (educators and psychologists), looked a large number of high quality visual arts classes at the high school level, and engaged in extensive qualitative analysis of the “Habits of Mind” that were being taught in such classes. This can be considered a foundational study in what the visual arts can do for children. By beginning with the art form, but a psychological researcher’s eye, the social, emotional, cognitive, and other skills built can then be investigated more fully. A parallel study in music has occurred recently at Boston College, and I am about to begin a similar study for theatre.

  2. Instrumental Studies. Taking into consideration the findings from intrinsic studies, researchers have begun to conduct high-level instrumental, or “transfer” studies. These studies use the scientific method to develop and test hypotheses with well controlled conditions, to isolate and determine the mechanism by which an art form can lead to a non-art outcome. Importantly for these studies is to move away from correlational studies, which the field has been criticized for in the past. In correlational studies, you cannot determine whether the art form is causing change (e.g. in SAT scores), or whether children who would have gotten higher SAT scores anyway decided to enroll in the arts, or whether some other factor (e.g. grit, executive function, high SES) might predict both. More recently, well controlled studies are finding that children in visual arts may have stronger geometry skills; that children in theatre have better social skills; and that playing music together is associated with prosocial behavior and higher IQ.

  3. Liminal Studies. Finally, newer research has focused on using the arts to provide opportunities for atypically developing children, such as children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Through the arts, atypically developing children may be able to express or show abilities they otherwise would not be able to. Programs of research on theatre and ASD in particular have been successful in showing improvement in social skills such as emotion recognition and prosocial behavior. Theatre may provide a sort of safe space or mental distance to practice and learn such skills.

Taken together, work that combines developmental science and the arts is out there, and is being done well, but needs more support and a careful way forward. There are so many unanswered questions. To name a few:

  • What are the differences between integrated and nonintegrated arts curricula?

  • What are the differences between art forms? Theatre, music, visual arts, dance, and creative writing all use different skills, attract different kids, and must cause different outcomes.

  • Where does teacher training come in versus the specialized knowledge of practicing artists? Not every artist can teach, not every teacher can teach art.

  • How can the arts inform treatment? Be standardized? Is that even a goal that we should be reaching for?

  • How can artists and teaching artists best provide evidence for policy makers and others who are determining educational curricula, test-heavy schooling, funding, and policy?

  • What is the difference between spontaneous arts engagement of early childhood and trained arts engagement of later childhood?

  • When are effects of arts engagement temporary, and when are they long lasting?

  • When are children given a trajectory as a result of arts engagement?

  • Where do more basic psychological capacities (e.g. executive functioning), as compared to more complicated (e.g. prosocial behavior) come into play in each art form?

  • How can researchers best honor the knowledge of art makers? Of teachers?

  • Where is the balance between qualitative, rich, narrative research, and quantitative, large scale, aggregate study when it comes to studying the arts?

The arts are a rich area for research by developmental psychologists, and such research must happen in partnership with artists and arts educators. The arts are practically universal, and must have cognitive, social, and emotional correlates and outcomes! A full science of child development must include a science of engaging in the arts.


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