Child Development: The Importance of Teaching Art to Youth

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Art has traditionally been viewed within educational frameworks and in society itself merely as an outlet of escape from “serious” study, a time set aside for fun without accomplishing anything worthwhile for a student’s future, except for the very rare student deemed talented in art. However, viewed from a different perspective, art not only provides a wide array of benefits to the process of early child development but also to the continuing process of nurturing creativity, cognition, and spatial thinking. The purpose of this study is to explore the diverse ways in which art, when integrated, can be a beneficial teaching aid across an entire curriculum, to help children develop cognitive skills when they begin to scribble and to continue to learn to express emotions and representation, add skills, modify thinking, establish new approaches and develop creativity. This paper sets forth examples of integrating art into curricula, beneficial methods, teaching styles, and creative aspects of art in relation to early childhood development, how art affects the development of creativity across a broad spectrum of subjects, and the specific benefits of art. 


In today’s society, youth are facing ever-increasing intellectual and emotional challenges, particularly in this age of high technology and information overload. So much of the input children experience every day are visual art experienced across a wide array of different platforms, from books and magazines to television to movies to the Internet, to iPads and Kindles, iPhones, iPods and smartphones, eBooks, Twitter, Facebook and a host of other social media. Even culture and language have changed, so much so that to a small child the word “mouse” likely conjures up a picture of a pink Hello Kitty or blue Snoopy peripheral device as opposed to Stuart Little. Art it seems is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Traditional notions of education and its relation to vocation have marginalized art as a goal or a discipline, a substantive pursuit, or a tool for greatly enhancing intelligence. (Prince, 2002, p.2-3). As a result of the failures of government and its seemingly endless budgetary woes, there has been a perennial rush to cut costs in education, and art programs are seemingly always one of if not the first places administrators are keen to slash. This rather myopic view of the role of art in education places children’s intellectual development at risk. Aside from the enormous impact art has on children from almost the time they can sit up and take notice, art can play one of the most pivotal roles in education and child development as a teaching tool that taps into the visual aspect of how children process information, and develop creativity and self-expression to better prepare them for social settings as they grow. Art not only allows such skills to develop within children’s intellect but using it to visually complement learning in other areas can actually facilitate the teaching of many subjects in ways other methods cannot reach.  (Ibid).

In this paper, both the importance of art in children's education and the role it plays in child development as well are explored in depth. It will be shown that many experts agree that for art's impact to be fully realized changes must be made in most education systems, in the curricula and in the way in which the curricula are taught. It is also apparent that there is no single course of action that experts can generally agree upon.

However, there is some agreement that art is important to the development of cognitive function in young children, and that this aspect is not sufficiently developed in curricula.  Also, there is a chasm between educators with opposing views as to just how much input they should have as to children's art. Some believe they should be more involved with their student's art-making, and others believe educators are already far too involved and need to force themselves to step back, and let their students take the risks of investigation, failure and success themselves.

This paper will also show how many experts believe that the process of making art itself is critical for very young children and develops cognitive and motor skills, and writing and the beginning of processing symbols. It is also shown how adults must restrain negativity, in particular during children's scribbling stage, and that children are inclined to begin pivotal cognitive growth with scribbling, which is instrumental in children's ultimate intellectual development. 

Most experts agree that art should come to be accepted among the most important courses. Many agree that the money spent on art in education is just as important as technology. But it is also acknowledged that that few administrators and government boards of education agree. 

The critical role of art in child development seems to be universally recognized as an important educational opportunity. The debate now focuses on just what to do about that with the available resources.

Background – Art as a Teaching Tool

The research which is reviewed in this report shows that schools as organizations are supposed to operate in an integrated fashion. Most of the examples throughout the articles reviewed reveal that too often teachers or department heads, fighting for a momentary budgetary advantage, or protecting salary or tenure, may find themselves staking out territory and pursuing some form of leverage or edge, for comfort but too often simply for survival. Consequently, the Arts, including music, and also physical education are commonly among the first to be sacrificed in some way. Yet, as experts in the arts education field point out, art is a subject that can not only cut across all other subjects but facilitate and enhance teaching them. In this regard, many of the experts reviewed in this paper conclude that schools as cohesive organizations should be looking for ways to encourage collaboration among departments, not fencing them off or encouraging fighting among them, and in particular administrators should be urging departments to take advantage of the substantial benefits of visual learning to increase the effectiveness of their own curricula. Art can be a very powerful teaching tool if effectively integrated into departments’ plans. (Prince, 2002, p. 25, 28-29). 

Moreover, the process of teaching art involves far more than simply putting a tin of paints and paper on a desk and having children paint away (although at a very early age that is encouraged (Striker, 2002)). (Morgan, 1988, p. 1-2). To be sure, this exercise indeed is a small part of the process, and encouraging freedom of expression is one of the ways in which educators can give children confidence and a feeling of security that their efforts themselves regardless of achievement are worthy. (Barnes, 2002, p. 2-3). But the strategy of using art as an overall educational tool has a twofold aim: (i) to bring out and nurture a child’s creativity; and (ii) to train in the methodology of using creativity to explore, take a risk, ask questions, find answers and solve problems. These dual goals do not only apply then to the study of art itself but rather extends to almost any area of study.  Moreover, the earlier these abilities are manifested the earlier children begin scooping up knowledge, exploring the unknown and challenging themselves. (Ibid, p. 2-10).

As mentioned, this process of illumination is self-realized but more often than not also the result of a guided process. For that process to unfold the educator must have a sense of the goal in mind, and some knowledge and/or training in nudging children along the path through art, allowing them to wander and experiment, feel free and safe, take risks and discover. “In free play, children could imagine and pretend in ways that allowed them to be powerful in the world.” (MacNaughton, 2003, p. 55). Nevertheless, the nudging in some way is often needed and appropriate. (Barnes, 2002, p. 3; MacNaughton, 2003, p. 55-56). Of course, there are many widely variant notions of the proper scope of how to teach art, as discussed in greater detail below, and the process of allowing artistic expression to develop will follow the educator’s or the system’s philosophy. (Barnes, 2002, p. 3-4). The references used herein are among many that offer guidance for development and the parameters of any art education program, and there is a wide range of theories to choose from that vary by region and culture, and often conflict with each other. 

The journey of a child through development of this process is not without change, and in some cases, peril as a child matures. There are stages according to some experts, though disagreement as to the exact sequence and extent of these stages or what effect certain input or intervention might have on that development. Lowenfeld identified five stages of such development from two years of age to fourteen or fifteen, and the sequence generally follows from the innocent freedom to create to an awareness of a world of consequence, where there is judgment and hence where there can be shame. (Miskimon, 2010).  Eisner explains how Both Lowenfeld and Sir Herbert Read concurred on basic elements of these stages, and both, following World War II, suggested this freedom, often manifested through some kind of artistic expression, which is intended they thought only to be “caught”, not “taught”. (Eisner, 2002, p. 32-33). Some of these concepts are key today in understanding the important place art and teaching art hold in education across all disciplines, and in developing curricula. (Ibid).

In this paper, a review will be made of the function of art and art education in child development, and the relationship between intellectual growth and development of artistic skill and understanding in children. This paper will also delve into the process of developing creativity in children, and various theories of developmental stages in creativity. The paper will offer an analysis of the effect of art and art education across a variety of disciplines and the ways in which art education can complement other subjects, and be integrated into an overall curriculum throughout primary and secondary education, to keep honing youth’s intellectual capacity and problem-solving skills. Finally, the benefits of arts education can provide to intellectual and cognitive development is discussed, including art’s role in cultural exchange and introducing high technology to children.  

The Role of Art in Early Child Development

Theories on the Role of Art in Early Child Development

According to Eisner (2002), both Vicktor Lowenfeld and Sir Herbert Read, renowned art educators, Lowenfeld from Austria and Read from England, believed art was one of the facilitating agencies for child development, including physical, mental and emotional development. ( p. 32-35). Lowenfeld believed art began its effect on childhood development as early as 2 to 4 years of age, and proceeded along five stages, which he called “Scribble”, “Preschematic”, “Schematic”, “Dawning Realism” And “Pseudorealistic” stages through at least 11 to 13 years of age (the latter stages mentioned throughout in later sections herein). (Lowenfeld, 1947). 

Earliest Stages of Development - Scribbling

Focusing on the earliest stage, Lowenfeld postulated that the Scribble stage, from 2 to 4 years, itself had four sub-stages, which he described as Disordered, Longitudinal, Circular, and Naming. (Ibid).  In the Disordered Scribble stage, Lowenfeld found that at this point the child usually had no control over motor skills. From this Disordered stage, the child will generally move on to a more tactile stage, the Longitudinal stage, where the child will enjoy movement, aware of the body’s position and ability to change position. (Ibid).  In the third sub-stage of the Scribble stage, the Circular stage, more complex forms can be drawn with more control over body movement. Finally, in the fourth and final Naming sub-stage of the Scribble stage, the child displays imaginative thinking through pictures. Lowenfeld calls this “one of the great occasions in the life of a human…the development of the ability to visualize in pictures.” (Ibid).

As is made clear from this sequence, while most adults will observe the toddler scribbling seemingly uncontrollably and think nothing of it, aside from perhaps some internal judgment that the child should draw something more organized and impatient for a creative effort that “looks like something”, in fact a highly complicated mental and physical process is initiating, and that process will help define the intellectual, emotional and physical development of the child over the succeeding ten or more years, and possibly well beyond. (Ibid). 

Matthews (2004), in “The Art of Infancy” also discusses the earliest manifestation of drawing by children aged 2-4, asking an important question in the chapter entitled “Trivial Actions or the Beginnings of Visual Expression and Representation?” wherein Matthews talks about the role art plays in a child’s early development and learning. (p. 254). Concurring with Lowenfeld’s (1947) take on the scribbling stage, Matthews observes the “trivial seeming actions are in fact the beginnings of visual expression and representation.” (Ibid, p. 255). He goes on to suggest that these early drawings “signal the child’s discovery of semiotic systems,” which he says is the basis of the use of symbols later on. Moreover, Matthews states that without these steps, thinking is impossible. This, he observes, makes it critical that the role of art education in early child development be considered for how critical and seminal it is. (Ibid, p. 256). But, Matthews disagrees somewhat with the theories suggesting fixed “stages” of development and prefers the theory that children’s artistic development is a reflection of intellectual development, and moves along a continuum, rather than some order of “stages” suitable to an adult’s thinking of what must be. (Ibid, p. 292-3)

In discussing just how this learning over a continuum occurs, Matthews (2004) notes that there are divergent views, some taking the position that learning how to use tools in children is accomplished mainly by imitation, and some hold a somewhat opposite view that children though they may need help, pretty much figure out by themselves how these things work. (Ibid). The approach is not only different, but those who hold these different views will invariably teach art to preschool-aged children with disabilities very differently. (Ibid, p. 256). 

Moreover, Matthews asserts that many theorists hold that aside from the methodology, as to “expression and representation”, there is no meaning to the scribbles. In other words, aside from learning to use tools, these efforts by young children are not an “intelligent expression of emotion or the mindful representation of events or objects.” (Ibid, p. 257). Matthews characterizes such theories as “profoundly and destructively” influencing education (Ibid), and points out how such theories are even contradicted in the story Matthews tells at the outset of his article, wherein he describes how young Chinese students in Singapore, 2 ½  to 3 ½  years old drew, and while drawing narrated their drawings (one child said “Wo de fei ji fei le” which means “my airplane flies”, another “Wo de fei ji zhao huo le” which means “my airplane is on fire”). (Ibid, p. 254). Matthews concludes that analysis of the drawings “both as process and artifact, reveals that they are elegantly orchestrated and have profound meaning.” (Ibid). 

Teaching art to young children – interference vs. nurturing

 Also, with respect to the amount and quality of supervision required by children of adults, Matthews (2004) postulates that while there are again two different camps, those that eschew almost any supervision and those that require it, what is truly required is understanding of what the child is actually doing. For small children, the product is not as important as the process and so where adults and educators focused on evaluation may focus on the product, they may miss the point of what the child is actually trying to accomplish. (Ibid, p. 266). Training of art instructors and teachers who use art for instruction, therefore, is required so that teachers can make sure to facilitate this activity and not inhibit it in any way. Matthews goes on to explain.

These apparently trivial behaviors are emergent representation and expression. To suppress early modes of representation (representation here meaning the way we give form to objects and events) and expression (here meaning the way we give form to emotion) is to limit the extent and depth to which the child can make an infrastructural investigation of semiotic systems essential to her survival. (Ibid). 

Interference in the natural development of cognitive representative and expressive functions can be highly detrimental. (Striker, 2001). Matthews holds that how teachers or parents understand this art process in children will “set up a train of consequences in terms of how you plan learning experiences for children.” (Matthews, 2004, p. 266). Rather than forcing an adult’s point of view on the child’s process, instructors and parents must resist the temptation, according to Matthews, to control the process because after all the process is driven by “the child’s own intentions, motivations and priorities…” (Ibid).

Matthews (2004) also emphasizes the usefulness of spontaneous art in children. He laments that this aspect of children’s artistic expression is met with “general devaluing and downplaying.” Ibid, p. 267). As much as teachers may constantly rest upon their curriculum, at times relentlessly, Matthews overall is supportive of free spontaneous drawing without giving a set task. This sets up the child’s discovery of the process and enables the child to be better able to choose the product. (Ibid). Of course, once again, the product is not what traditional art teaching would prefer. “Visual realism” as Matthews calls it has little relevance to the art world today, where paintings are just as likely to be entirely abstract as photographic. (Ibid).

In their chapter “Roles, Responses and Strategies to Support Children’s Art”, Fox & Schirrmacher (2009) discuss the various teaching methods utilized with young children, some facilitating and some interfering. In the valuing approach, teachers can tell the children they like or even love their art, and praise the time and effort involved. In the questioning approach, the teacher asks the child directly what the drawing is supposed to be. This confrontational aspect can be highly detrimental for younger children, in particular, because the product is not as important as the process to them.  In the probing approach, an attempt is made to “draw some hint” from the child about the art. While less confrontational than the questioning approach, probing still has some peril, and they suggest it be used sparingly. In the correcting approach, the teacher attempts to give specific comments to help the child improve their art by making it more “realistic”. This method is counter to permitting the child to develop representational skills naturally. (p. 275-276).

Building on his theory of development over a unique continuum, Matthews (2004) concluded at that time that it was necessary to reevaluate the “role of childhood, the ecological niche it occupies, and how best the beginnings of intellectual and emotional life might be supported.” (Ibid, p. 294). Scribbles, he opines, are the beginnings of “representational thought,” and their importance in child development and art education is undervalued and understated. Keen understanding of how the world is represented in thought, words, pictures, and technology may depend “on the formation of early representation in infancy and how well this has been supported and nurtured.” (Ibid).

The obvious question then is how has this process been “supported and nurtured?”  Wilson (2007), in  “Child Art after Modernism” takes pains to describe the interference in the process, explaining that great art teachers prided themselves with the accomplishments reflected in their students’ product, but “the Cizeks, the Lowenfelds,…and all the other gifted art teachers…themselves, through their language…motivations…instructions…guiding techniques…and processes – created child art!” (p. 311-312). He goes on to assert that children’s art, long thought to have been the “most spontaneous, the freest, the most creative, the least influenced, is actually the foremost example of cultural influence” directly as a result of this interference. But Wilson goes on to suggest that children simply go through different stages of observing the world around them, and other children doing what they do. He calls these stages preconventionality, conventionality and postconventionality, and his theory is that in order for a child to express his or her own view, the child must first have acquired some notions of the conventions of art in the first place. Wilson cites Picasso as an example, pointing out that Picasso needed to master the conventions before he could disassemble them and create a new direction of unconventionality. (Ibid). 

It could be argued that Wilson’s analysis merely replaces one set of stages with another set, all attempting to describe the same phenomenon, that is a child playing at something that is pure joy while developing the tools to interact with the world around and communicate about it, and to begin to think creatively and cognitively (Matthews, 2004, p. 265-266) until adult planning and judgment intervene, or in most cases, interfere. 

Perhaps a good example of the purity of this youthful enterprise is captured in the 1970’s Taiwanese movie Loo Bin Hua (The Dull Ice Flower) (Yang, 1989), about an art teacher from the big city in Taiwan who takes a post at a small town elementary school, where he finds convention firmly in control in the rigid art program. As Matthews (2004) describes similar convention, perhaps in Singapore but certainly around the world, “Children’s spontaneous drawings are often devalued… [and] children are prematurely trained in diluted versions of still-life practice or else are led, step by step, toward a banal, stereotyped end product preenvisaged in the mind of the teacher (or more precisely, in the mind of a government-controlled curriculum designer).” (p. 284). 

Mr. Guo, the new art teacher in Loo Bin Hua changes the format of the art program to allow for a free creative process, allowing the students to choose their subjects, genre, colors, medium, and valuing the abstract and creative as much or more than the photographic. His prize student turns out to be the least disciplined boy, a slacker of a student who is the son of a poor tea farmer and a happy-go-lucky boy with a fierce imagination. Perhaps because they have been taught to do so, most of his classmates around him look around the room for inspiration, but A-Ming’s paintings come from inside him, and look like they are straight out of a dream (or sometimes a nightmare) with vivid out of place colors and figures, and usually portraying the most fantastic scenes and stories. In fact, his most difficult drawing A-Ming’s tries to paint is a picture of his mother, who died when he was very young. He cannot remember her face. (Yang, l989).

Later, A-Ming’s classmate, son of the wealthy county chief, a boy who cannot paint anything that is not right in front of him is chosen to represent the school over the art teacher’s objections, and wins second place in a local art competition. Art Teacher Guo, disappointed with the conventions and with the kowtowing to the local chief to the detriment of A-Ming, quits and leaves, taking one of A-Ming’s paintings as a token after telling the boy of his amazing ability. A-Ming is poor, and dies soon after of the same liver ailment that took his mother. In the end, his fantastic painting, submitted to a worldwide competition by his art teacher, wins “First Prize in the World” for children’s art. At a ceremony at the school giving A-Ming credit posthumously, his elder sister gives a speech asking why only his art teacher appreciated his unique creativity while he was alive, chastising the other teachers and administrators for blindly following convention. (Ibid).

The title, Loo Bing Hua describes a flower that is planted amidst the tea plants, and when the flowers bloom and then die and fall to the groun, they fertilize the tea plants helping them grow well. A-Ming, like the flower, in dying gave a gift of inspiration to those around him with his natural talent for imagination and creativity, things that came from inside, not conventions. Until Art teacher Guo became his teacher, A-Ming had no reason to excel, and no idea he could use such fantastic images, and no motivation to use them. The film does not portray Art Teacher Guo teaching A-Ming, but rather essentially setting him free. (Ibid). This would fit within the thinking offered by Matthews (2004), where teachers do not constrict children at the outset, in these early years, but rather facilitate their expression and ultimately representation by using their own vivid imaginations and creativity. (p. 284).

Whether counting stages according to Lowenfeld or Wilson, or any of the other numerous art education experts, all seem to agree that children at the earliest stage of art education, this preschool period, require “nurturing”, whether that means doing something or doing nothing more than providing the pencil or crayon, paintbrush and paper (or nowadays, perhaps the touch screen application, or painting software and mouse). Some experts write passionately about controlling the process and some equally passionately about allowing the child as much freedom as possible from adult judgment (Matthews, 2004, p. 264-266; Lowenfeld, 1947), but most seem to acknowledge the process has long-term ramifications far beyond the early years. (Ibid). The debate among art educators and educators in general has raged for a hundred years, and is likely to rage on, now taking on the new technology of visual arts where the new tools of art might be a computer mouse or newer still a touch screen and a finger. (Matthews, 2004, p. 253). Matthews writes extensively about the need now to incorporate the new media into early childhood art education, postulating soon paper and brush or crayon may be obsolete. (Ibid, p. 253, 256, 262). Any trip to almost any modern art museum could echo this sentiment, as most will have exhibits involving a wide array of media, including television, video, computer graphics and gaming, even cell phone photographic displays. An good example might be Stefan Sagmeister’s (2013) “The Happy Show” exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) (“a thematic exhibition of film, print, infographics, sculpture, and interactive installations offers visitors the experience of walking into the designer's mind.”)(Sagmeister, 2013).

Kindler (2004), in her “Introduction: Development and Learning in Art”, traces artistic development from an infant’s experiment drawing her finger through some spilled milk to an artist preparing for an art exhibition. (p. 227).  Focusing on representation, she looks at the journey from that infant’s first curiosity to the professional’s artistic expression.  Her focus initially is on the development of the art whereas Matthews is focused on the effect art has on development of the child. (Matthews, 2004). Kindler (2004) describes Matthews’ theory as considering artistic development in the child far more complex than a “process of unilinear unfolding limited to the domain of graphic representation.” (p. 229). She observes that Matthews promotes an art education system where children and adults are “’companions as intellectual adventurers’ in the context of play.” (Ibid). 

As for Wilson, Kindler (2004) discusses the controversial nature of Wilson’s theory that children’s art is in fact nothing more than art created by art educators themselves and the art education system itself, and that the art produced in art education for decades has been more a product of culture than some natural biological process. She notes that Wilson would prefer to essentially start all over, throw out the old theories and rewrite “a philosophy of child art and art education relevant to and reflective of the reality of children of the present day.” (Ibid). Kindler acknowledges this point of view has its critics, and is quite controversial. (Ibid). Matthews (2004), Wilson (2007) and Kindler (2004) all acknowledge, as discussed above, that technology now has affected not only art education but the way in which children approach art itself, and whichever theory of art education is applied to preschoolers, all experts seem to agree some changes are needed in art education to accommodate the new paradigms created by technology. For some, like Matthews, this opens up a world of opportunity. For other traditionalists perhaps the same approach as always is taken with technology, only instead of teaching a child every step involved in using a brush, the instruction is applied to a mouse, or perhaps a touch screen. (Kindler, 2004, p. 233-234). 

Artistic development in young children

Delving further into issues of “development” as it relates to art, Kindler (2004a) in “Researching impossible? Models of Artistic Development Reconsidered” argues that analyzing development per se now is more difficult since what is considered “art” is a somewhat broader range of artistic (or some uninformed people would say untalented) endeavors. (p. 235). Kindler (2004a) observes that there does not appear to be any appropriate measurement of linear development, in particular across cultures, and that rather development is more often denoted by “an increase in pictorial repertoires.” (Ibid). Kindler (2004a) refers to this as “a fundamental difficulty related to the concept of development in art – namely, the vastness and ill-defined nature of the artistic domain.” (Ibid). She does however offer some criticism of M.A. Hagen’s developmental theory that offers a rather rigid limitation on what Hagen considers to constitute “art”. Hagen, Kindler says, limits art to “two-dimensional creations of skilled people, whether painted, drawn, etched, engraved and photographed, or even programmed.” Kindler (2004a) notes that Hagen also says these are not art unless produced by “always skilled labor, the end product of developed technique.” (Ibid). Kindler also observes that Hagen “excludes sculpture, crafts and artifacts” and Hagen also excludes beautiful expressions of nature or, according to Kindler, “the happy accidents of chance construction, or the uncontrolled expressions of children.” Kindler notes that such a definition might be satisfactory for psychology, but likely not for artists, art educators or art historians. (Ibid). Also, such limitations could possibly have been applied by some in Picasso’s early years, or Miro’s, or later Jackson Pollack’s as they might have described the impressions of some in and out of the art world who were unfamiliar with the creativity in their new visions, considering their works not to constitute “art”.

In Kindler’s (2004a) view, adopting some of Wilson’s theory in part, any consideration of development must take visual stimulation into account. Referring to research conducted with her research partner, Darras, Kindler mentions the “Flynn effect” in discussing how visual exposure and engaging with it has affected the young, and has had an “impact on cognition.” (Ibid, p. 243). Their research led to their conclusion that “the change in visual environment and the resulting growing expertise in visual analysis account for… [an increase in]… IQ test results.” (Ibid). Kindler (2004a) points out that Western education is still dominated by verbal reasoning and data retention. Quoting Fish & Scrivener (1990) Kindler observes “New evidence of the importance of mental imagery in memory, reasoning and invention, and research that reveals the awesome proportion of the brain that is dedicated to vision, emphasize the need to address the imbalance.” (Ibid). 

Theories on Modes of Art Instruction in Early Child Development

Considering these various theories on the influence or contribution of art instruction on child development, while acknowledging there are at times wide differences in those theories, an overall approach to art instruction could emerge, though perhaps not an approach on which all theorists could agree. In fact, as mentioned, Kindler (2004a) notes that not all theorists can even agree on what constitutes art. (p. 235). But that should not stop the development of an approach to instruction, because irrespective of what it is called, the phenomenon of preschool age children creating representative works has meaning in the context of the child’s development, whether it is viewed in the context of Wilson’s and Kindler’s views of development of art, or Matthews view of development of the child. 

The latter point of view is more germane to the issue here, that is that development in artistic expression and representation in children over a course during childhood enhances development in other areas beyond art, including critical thinking, giving art a compelling aspect, one that has a great deal of value in child  development. It appears to be one of Matthews’ central theses, and he uses this high value to add some immediacy to the consideration of how to incorporate art instruction into early education in a manner that will promote development, not hinder it. (Matthews, 2004).

 It is this value aside from aesthetics that produces some urgency in tackling art curricula and art instruction to maximize their effects on child development itself, as opposed to the development of the child artist, though that is without question a consequence of some children’s different relationship with art which develops over time, as pathway for some, as purpose in life for others. As Matthews suggests, providing the means by which children can commence and continue on a journey of discovery and development without interference but with some form of guidance is key to education and development in general. (Matthews, 2004). This is far different from the typical view of art programs in schools discussed at the outset in this paper which are frequently the first to be trimmed, cut or gutted depending on the scope of any public school’s particular budgetary nightmare. The reason has always been the general lack of understanding of the importance of the intellectual phenomenon attached to the process of learning to make art itself. Architects of curricula apply adult precepts to the process without comprehending the value-added nature of the process itself. (Ibid).

For a young child, figuring out how to draw something is a little like wandering in the forest and trying to discover how to get out. Some curricula give the child a northern bearing and instruct the child to keep going north, with signposts and in some cases, breadcrumbs, robbing the child of the opportunity to develop his or her own approach, thinking, logic and skills. Some curricula give the child a compass, teach the child how to use the compass, and tell the child to head north, robbing the child of the possibility of learning through trial and error. Some curricula teach the child how to make a compass in the wilderness and drop them off in the midst of the forest and say “good luck”. In Chinese there is a saying, “Gei ta eu bu ru, jiao ta diao eu”. Essentially it means giving a man a fish is not as good as teaching the man how to fish. (Lin, 2007, p. 9). Matthews (2004) argues that too much art instruction is leading preschoolers by the nose according to an adult’s view of the world and art, and not enough facilitating the child’s self-discovery of the process, and as a consequence developing their own perceptions about representation and “semiotics” as Matthews calls it. (p. 265-267). By allowing children to freely discover these things, the emergence of representative skills will develop in a more natural and solidified way, according to Matthews. (Ibid). 

Integration of Art across the Curriculum

Standard art instruction 

The concept of integration has been posited as an important way of linking the creative thinking developed through art to other subjects that students are taught as well. (Prince, 2002).  Integration is also a concept which is compatible with the general thesis here that art education is not only important to expand students’ overall breadth of knowledge, but as a tool to complement instruction across a wide variety of other subjects which are often placed ahead of art in importance. (Ibid). 

In her book, Art Matters, Prince (2002) not only discusses integration, but also concrete steps towards improving art instruction itself. Prince takes issue with commercialization of available art planning programs and lesson plans, often prepackaged and targeted toward the mindless, lamenting they are often developed with a very traditional view of art that is demeaning and designed to kill time. In response to those solicitations that start out “Looking for something to do in your classroom?” Prince says “I do not know which makes me angrier, the insult to the intelligence and curricula of all the terrific art teachers out there, or the fact that in far too many cases, art teachers are not only insulted by this approach, but downright grateful for it.” (Ibid). She asks whether math or science teachers get such solicitations with prepackaged lessons which are designed with the lowest common denominator in mind. Not only does the poor quality of these types of lessons offend, but also the notion underlying such a marketing strategy which “portrays visual arts curriculum as a random collection of cookie-cutter projects devoid of intellectual content, fundamental rationale, or higher-order thinking.” (Ibid). 

She argues that art is rarely purely visual, and that generally art will have some aspect that is emotional or intellectual. “The best art will engage me on all three levels – aesthetic, emotional, and rational.” (Ibid). Moreover, the creation of art also requires an intellectual exercise. Prince notes that Michelangelo understood this when he wrote “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.” (Ibid). Prince mentions that Eliott Eisner spoke of art “as an alternative way of knowing the world,” and she notes that for some artists, the language of art is the best way of telling us what they want, “truths that cannot always be put in words.” (Ibid). By way of example, Prince asks whether Edvard Munch could have as effectively used any words to express the emotions at work in The Scream or Starry Night. (Ibid).  

Integrating Art - background

In Art Matters, Prince discusses the ways in which art can be integrated with other subjects in typical curricula using a variety of common concepts as focal points, including philosophy, research, symbolism, creativity, technology and invention, and also using substantive areas, including history, science, mathematics, language arts, and performing arts. Prince in the section of her book entitled “Elements and Principles” starts from defining the terminology of art education, suggesting that educators throughout the curriculum become familiar with the terms so that related concepts can be seamlessly integrated. (Ibid). An example of such terms she uses involves the word “pattern”, which appears throughout a curriculum in mathematics, science, history, music, language arts and art. Prince suggests that studying and discussing the visual aspects of patterns can be a very effective way of introducing the concept of patterns across the whole curriculum, each discipline related to the this term slightly differently. (Ibid).

This dovetails with the thinking of Arthur Efland (2002) in Art and Cognition: Integrating the Visual Arts in the Curriculum, in which Efland traces the history of prejudices against the arts back to Plato, and addresses the distinctions which have been made between the arts and other subjects in terms of importance, and even what is considered “serious” study. (p. 1-2, 4-6). Efland proposes that “[t]he time has come to undo the damage caused by the biases of the past” and examine how the intellectual status of the arts fit within the “nature of human intelligence” and current “understandings of the mind.” (Ibid, p. 6). Efland (2002) sees art as a critical piece of the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual development, noting that in addition to the knowledge, enjoyment and aesthetic benefits of art, there are “occasions for thought provoking encounters into problems and concerns affecting individuals and societies.” (Ibid). Nor is it preferable to think of art education as having relevance only as to those students who have unique artistic talents and will take up careers in the arts, in fact far from that. “While it is true that most schoolchildren are not likely to become professional artists or scholars of the arts, my purpose in examining the cognitive implications of education in the arts is to see how or whether individuals can develop their powers of thought more fully through widening their understanding of art and the ideas one encounters in the study of art.” (Ibid). This is aimed at building a “foundation for lifelong learning inclusive of the arts.” (Ibid).

Integrating Art - obstacles

Efland (2002) identifies what he sees as three major obstacles to integrating art into the curriculum. First, there is the perennial bias of considering art as entertainment, and therefore as “frivolous occupations”, and merely “elective options”, a pleasant experience if you have enough time. (Ibid, p. 7). Much of this bias has its inception in the notion that a career in arts is not generally considered “economically productive.” (Ibid). Secondly, most people, and according to Efland unfortunately including a large proportion of art educators themselves, view art education as merely an enterprise involved with “fostering creative expression” without understanding that this involves serious undertakings in acquiring knowledge and cognitive growth. Thirdly, Efland points out that even if age old biases and prejudices against art education were somehow resolved, educators themselves “are unsure of how to use the arts to develop cognitive abilities in children or the means of assessing such attainments.” (Ibid). 

In his book, Efland (2002) sets out to demonstrate how education in the visual arts contributes “to the overall development of the mind” and in particular the cognitive abilities that progress when a person undertakes the creation of, and/or tries to understand and interpret visual arts. (Ibid, p. 7). There are also more immediate and economic benefits. Efland notes that in the 1990’s when California had rolled back real estate taxes, schools were hardest hit with budgetary limitations, and arts were one of the first areas to be trimmed. Ten years later, the California entertainment industry complained that there weren’t enough students graduating with basic training in aesthetics or the practical tools necessary to work in the industry. Without qualified applicants, the industry began looking overseas for workers trained in the arts. (Ibid, p. 8). 

One of the problems with the relationship between students and art is the tendency in school to relegate art to a separate sphere, the world of the museum only, to esoteric references beyond the reach of ordinary children, and thus form more barriers to establishing a better understanding not only of the art itself, but of the role it plays in developing and contributing to our culture. (Ibid).

Integrating Art - context

Efland (2002) points out that “the educational task is to enable learners to form connections with these works, including works by artists from other cultures not widely understood in the Western world.” (Ibid). One of the most powerful aspects of art education is what it requires in order to comprehend the subjects. Art must be taken in context, and in order to understand the context, one must understand in some respects the story surrounding the art, which means taking in the history, culture, politics and in some cases individual narrative of the artist (Chagall might be a good example). (Ibid, p. 9). Efland points out that we tend to view life as the ever “unfolding of a story”, and that story is always understood in the context of what was going on around us at any particular moment in time, the people, places, events, objects, all that are comprised within our world. Thus, we understand context, even if unconsciously, and it gives us the foundation and basis for an approach to understanding art as well.

This concept has implications in the integration of art into the curriculum. Efland (2002) proposes that if students are to understand art in the context of its cultural and social surroundings, and the artists’ or the works’ purposes, “then it would make sense to integrate the knowledge of the artwork into those subjects, such as the social studies or history.” (Ibid, p. 8-9). This has a dual benefit, making the collateral subject more interesting by introducing art into it, and making art more relevant by introducing the context in a more interesting and relevant way.  But accomplishing this will take some adjustment to long held misconceptions about art. Efland observes that art has long been viewed as a non-cognitive subject imbued with “feelings and emotions”, but definitely not with ideas. In the domain of knowledge acquisition, in the field of education, the primary goal is the product of reason, not emotion or feelings, and thus art has been relegated to this secondary plateau throughout educational history. (Ibid, p. 11)

Integrating Art – art is not a simple domain

This focus on art as a “simple” domain has resulted in a slant in its teaching methodology, one that tends to be subjected to “artificial neatening” according to Efland (2002) in order to make it easier to learn. By destroying the complexity and ambiguities inherent in works of art, it is robbed of its many possible meanings and interpretations, and what is more troubling the student is robbed of the opportunity to discover them. (Ibid). Moreover, because art was deemed a non-cognitive subject that was not to be taken seriously in terms of fostering intellectual growth, art teachers were given a certain amount of latitude in designing their courses and some immunity from objective testing. As Efland (2002) observes, “as long as they were situated in the warm, fuzzy realm of feeling and emotion, they could avoid the onerous business of objective testing forced on teachers of other subjects.” (Ibid, p. 21). Discussing the views of Parson on this subject, Efland points out that this freedom resulted somewhat in the separation of art from the other parts of the ordinary curriculum. (Ibid, p. 21-22). Efland examines how behaviorists as early as the sixties divided education “between the cognitive and non-cognitive.” This affected even the thinking of art educators themselves, and at times in welcomed ways in order to support the isolation of art from the other “cognitive” subjects, allowing for a somewhat freer reign. This division also paid homage to the longstanding Platonic ideals implying “a hierarchy of subjects that placed the arts on a lower rung of the educational ladder.” (Ibid). 

Integrating Art – cognitive domain

But Efland (2002) proposes that now the system is prepared for recognition that the visual arts are in fact a relevant part of the cognitive domain and development, and thus integration is not only preferable, but necessary to prepare students today for the world around them, one which is swept up in the visual arts, in part a result of globalization, and in part due to the burst of technological developments in the last twenty years that have made the visual arts available to almost everyone in every corner of the globe almost any time of the night or day. Moreover, not only have these visual arts become available to such a widespread extent, but new tools of technology have put possibilities into the hands of so many who might never have picked up a paintbrush or opened a book about art. Integrating art education into the curriculum has ramifications not only for the art instructor, but for the rest of the system as well, because integration means mutuality, and thus a theme in the art course may be repeated throughout the curriculum in various other subjects, and vice-versa. (Ibid, p. 22).

Efland (2002) gives credit to Howard Gardner and Harvard University’s Project Zero as having major responsibility for work in cognitive and artistic development. (Ibid, p. 20). In his book, Art Education and Human Development, Gardner (1990) has little respect for earlier theories of human development, likening those theories as promoting human automatons, a race of problem solvers without the skills to be “problem finders”. ( p. 6). Gardner sardonically characterizes the study of the development of these human automatons as “reasonably straightforward…[where] the mature adult [is] a rational problem-solving ‘computer’ confronting a world of physical objects….one ‘merely’ devises tasks that tap those capacities, administers such measures to children of various ages (or differing degrees of sophistication), and then tallies where the younger child falls short.” This errant approach, according to Gardner, concentrates on solving problems, not finding them, on “deficiencies, not strengths”, on objective answers, rather than “those where the performance might well proceed in a number of directions.” (Ibid). Since these theories of human development proceeded only from the standpoint of science, they are limited, Gardner asserts. “Clearly, a comprehensive science of human development needs in some fashion to consider the full spectrum of capacities and talents exhibited by mature human beings in diverse cultures.” (Ibid, p. 7). Gardner (1990) argues that humans are far more diverse than mere logic, and symbolic competency “extends well beyond logic and language in its scientific garb.” (Ibid). One of the key aspects of Gardner’s and Project Zero’s study of art across curricula is giving students the necessary skills to broaden horizons and deal with an ever growing panoply of visual arts circulated around the globe today at the speed of light. As for Gardner’s determination to place art within the cognitive realm, he emphatically states

In adopting this conception there is no attempt to deny that the arts involve emotions, that they induce feelings of mystery or magic such as in Dahl's novels, or that they have a religious or spiritual dimension. Indeed, in this view, the emotions are seen to function cognitively – to guide the individual to make certain distinctions, to recognize affinities, to build up expectations and tensions that are then resolved.  However, human artistry is viewed first and foremost as an activity of the mind, an activity that involves the use of and transformation of various kinds of symbols and systems of symbols. (Ibid, p. 9).

Thus, elevating art to a cognitive level, Gardner discusses how the symbolization is not mathematical or linguistic, but aesthetic and therefore different approaches are needed to understand the nature of these aesthetics. (Ibid). These studies catapulted art into a cognitive sphere, as Efland recognizes. (Efland, 2002, p. 20). 

Integrating Art – current ideas

In terms of carrying out an integration program, in the past ten years there has been a recurrence of interest in including art in curricula in more meaningful ways. For example Chicago State University, pursuant to a Title II Grant, developed a middle school curriculum which, among other things, constructed an art integration program in association with the Art Education Partnership (AEP). AEP is a national coalition of arts related and government organizations, and it is administered under an umbrella agreement with the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts. (“On-line expeditions”, 2003). One of the aims of the program is to raise the level of learning and boost achievement, in particular in disadvantaged or remedial students. The program is also designed to develop better cognitive skills in young children, as well.    

The overall program includes four components, Inquiry-Based Instruction, Arts Integration, Technology Integration and Local Action Project Development. As for Arts Integration, the theory behind this particular program is that integration is “not a substitute for teaching arts for their own sake.” (Ibid). Rather, it is to realize “the power of the arts when used as a catalyst for teaching across the curriculum.” (Ibid). Moreover, the object is not to introduce snippets of art awareness into other subject areas, but rather develop “a methodology and a philosophical approach to education that creates a level of personal connection and added depth in the classroom through a creative inquiry-based process of teaching and learning.” (Ibid).  While the program contemplates artists participating in the program in visitations to classrooms, it is not the focus. The program lists the benefits of integration as connecting “visualization with reading comprehension, contextualizes math, or brings an experiential context to the science or social studies classroom.” (Ibid). Finally the program refers to the integration of “perception into cognition, and expression into reflection,” which are processes the program contends help students perform “significantly” better. (Ibid). 

As for specific integration, the program discusses the connections between Arts instruction and Reading and Language Development, Math, Fundamental Cognitive Skills and Capacities, Motivations to Learn, Effective Social Behavior and School Environment. Language and Reading skills are said to be greatly enhanced through unlocking symbols, using visual arts to learn better reading comprehension and processing of new material, and using improved spatial skills for writing achievement. Art forms (such as music and visual arts), provide excellent training ground for spatial reasoning and spatial-temporal reasoning skill, as well as problem identification and solutions, all essential to mathematics, as well as cognitive reasoning. Moreover learning in the arts provides experience with creative thinking, including “originality, elaboration, (and) flexibility”. (Ibid). 

Learning in the arts also nurtures the motivation to learn “including active engagement, disciplined and sustained attention, persistence, and risk taking, increasing attendance and aspirations.” (Ibid). The same can be said for social behavior, where self-confidence, self-control, self-identity, conflict resolution, collaboration, empathy and social tolerance are all enhanced through study of the arts. Finally, the program contends that studying the arts helps foster better conditions for student success that are conducive to teacher and student success by “fostering teacher innovation, a positive professional culture, community engagement, increased student attendance and retention, effective instructional practice, and school identity.” (Ibid).

The program also provides some answers as to why art integration changes the learning experience for students. Part of the reason has to do with the nature of art itself, and that fact that the arts nurture cognitive and also social development. Furthermore, research conducted by the program’s designers found a host of benefits of arts integration, including:

1. The arts reach students who are not otherwise being reached.

2. The arts reach students in ways that they are not otherwise being reached. 

3. The arts connect students to themselves and each other. 

4. The arts transform the environment for learning. 

5. The arts provide learning opportunities for the adults in the lives of young people. 

6. The arts provide new challenges for those students already considered successful. 

7. The arts connect learning experiences to the world of real work. (Ibid). 

As part of any integration program, Prince (2002) also suggests students learn to use a methodology of criticism in order to fully understand not only art works, but a wide array of subjects. She notes her preference for a critical approach used by Dr. Edmund Burke Feldman that involves a process of describe, analyze, interpret and judge. Prince also explains that criticism in art is used to arrive at some judgment about art works. (Ibid). The relevance to integration is the opportunity criticism offers to compare methodologies across different disciplines. Teachers in those related fields might determine the form of critique in their own systems, and integrate the art methodology, or point out the differences. (Prince, 2002). 

Malin (2009) in Making Meaning: Children's Art Making as a Way of Learning presents another example of an integrated program, developed as a means of recovering from the decimation of public school arts education in California, as mentioned earlier. She describes how the Arts Learning Anchor Schools (ALAS) initiative seeks to bring artists and designated schools together to try and develop programs that train teachers to integrate arts into the curriculum. Among the tools used is the Studio Habits of Mind (SHoM) framework which contains a list of capabilities which are cultivated through art. These abilities include developing craft and coming to an understanding of the art world, but also seek to develop skills beyond these basic foundations, including such things as “observation, imagination and perseverance.” (p. 34).

Malin (2009) relates how in one of the elementary schools, a visiting artist specializing in visual arts, helped the school develop a five-year plan for arts integration. The plan included training art teachers and grade teachers, and training art teachers to train and work with grade teachers. This involved collaboration on a series of projects to integrate art into the science curriculum, and also focus on environmental issues. Also, each grade had art projects during the semester, such as observing and creating art about trees in Kindergarten, and designing and printing energy conservation posters in fourth grade. The integration aspect was conducted at the same time as art classes were also held by the art teaching staff. (Ibid, p. 35-36). The schools which are part of the ALAS initiative are not typical of the art education available in California schools. 

The visual arts visiting artist in the ALAS program discussed by Malin (2009) also has a great deal of teaching experience. One of this teacher’s focus points is on recycling, consistent with one of the missions of the ALAS program, and she uses this message to also challenge and develop the students’ creativity and problem recognition and solving skills. “Using recycled materials teaches important lessons about reusing products, and also teachers children that anything can be transformed and reinvented through their own creative process.” (Ibid). Thus the arts program is not only a standalone course, but arts learning is integrated as part of the general curriculum mission, and even though the art room for the visiting artist is in the basement, as Malin describes it, that art room “is a hub where the mission of creative learning is brought to life.” 

A feature of the program that helps with the success of integration is that the school principal is fully on board with the concept of art integration. Malin, having observed this program personally for over one year, noted that “while nearly all the arts and arts integration activities took place in the art room, there were other activities that were arts-inspired in the classrooms.” (Ibid, p. 46). In one conversation Malin had with a group of first grade students, they described how one girl had made a drawing of a skull from several drawings she did of the front and then the side of the skull. The decision to draw both the front and side was something the child decided on her own from circumstances, problem solving and creativity. (Ibid, p. 49). Malin (2009) observed that science and art complement each other well. In the case of a fourth grader interviewed in connection with her painting of a tree, the girl noted not only the inception of the idea of her subject, but also some of the complexities of her mission, such as lighting in the sky along the horizon:

I thought about my orange tree in my backyard and I decided to make it. So yeah, I like to climb in my tree a lot….Well, when I look outside the colors from the top, it does look different. The top is darker and the bottom is lighter. But I didn’t want to put like white right here, so I decide to put darker blue and then do lighter blue. (Ibid, p. 51).

Although this process involved making a painting, nevertheless, the effort cut across science, the environment, problem solving and other cognitive functions.

Malin (2009) also describes the parameters of her study, as she made a detailed study of children’s art-making through detailed analysis of the data and information collected during her one year in observing the classes in the ALAS program. Emergent codes, as she explains them included “Storytelling”, “to capture moments such as when Omar talked about his karate teacher while he painted.” In addition to storytelling in their art, Malin also observed “Representing Experiences” in art making. Malin (2009) describes how through the process of reviewing the notes from interviews with the students over the one year period, certain patterns emerged, including Intention, “meaning the intentions that appeared to drive children’s art making,” “Reasons for making art”, which arose out of statements about circumstances at the inception of a project, and ranged from “I didn’t have anything to do” and “the teacher told us to do this” to more complex explanations such as “I like to draw when I’m kind of mad.” (Ibid, p. 57-59). Ultimately, the patterns ended up being Storytelling and Representing Experiences, but only as sub-codes for Intentions along with Identity and Emotion, and Experimentation. In the end, Malin’s codes formed a matrix with categories of “Using materials”, “Using imagination”, Social interaction”, “Contextof art making”, “Intention”, “Revision”, “Reasons for making art”, “Learning though art making”, “Representing ideas in art”, and “Learning how to make art”. (Ibid, p. 61).

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