If you think you’ve had a tough time living through this pandemic, imagine what it must be doing to your kids. Having not yet formed the thick skin of a well-adjusted (albeit stressed-out and emotionally exhausted) adult, kids are feeling the isolation and anxiety of these unprecedented times just as much, if not more, than all the rest of us. Research has found that since the pandemic started, there’s been a surge in the number of young people experiencing signs of clinical depression, many of whom no longer – or never did – have access to school based mental health services. Here’s where arts education in schools can help.
“Painting and ceramics, music and dance, photography and film—these aren’t merely hobbies; they are some of humankind’s most liberating pathways to creativity and catharsis,” writes Frank Gehry for Time. Throughout history creative outlets like these have been used to express and come to terms with tough emotions, and to record important events. It’s fundamental to the human condition – unlike being stuck in quarantine, away from friends and family, for weeks on end. Not only that, but creative arts teach us to, and allow us to, imagine the future that we want – and then take steps to create it.
Despite the fact that human beings gravitate towards the arts by our very nature, they often take on a back seat, extra-curricular status rather than play an important role in the schooling of future generations. Furthermore, according to research, the proportion of kids receiving arts education has shrunk drastically in the United States and other places where standardised testing has become the norm.
Gehry points out that “For students, teachers, parents—for all of us—this is a giant leap backward, not least because studies have shown that students who have the arts included in their core curriculum also see improvement in reading and math”. This proves that even in a society that values STEM fields above arts education in schools, there’s still an important place for the latter.
Possibly more important than a maths grade, though, are the soft skills and emotional qualities that develop along with arts education. “Young people who study the arts consistently demonstrate higher levels of empathy, social tolerance and civic engagement“, writes Gehry. Echoing this, Brian Kisida and Daniel H. Bowen write that “students who received more arts education experiences are more interested in how other people feel and more likely to want to help people who are treated badly”. In a world that is still being racked with racial tensions, political head-butting, and violent riots, what could be more important than this?
So it’s not only in the classroom that arts education in schools would have a positive effect, but on society as a whole – our kids are the ones who will grow up to shape the societies of the future, after all. They’ll be less stressed, more creative, and more well-equipped to solve problems in creative ways, as well as see those creative solutions from the perspectives of others if they’ve been taught these skills through the arts, from a young age.
Gehry writes that “as advocates, we see that arts education is an antidote to the narrow curricula, rote memorization and over-reliance on high-stakes testing that leave too many teachers questioning their calling, and too many students unseen. As human beings, we thrill to the excitement, joy and fun that the arts bring to the experience of learning, teaching and growing.”
Though there is limited empirical data regarding the effects that arts education in schools has on children’s learning and life experience, what we do know is that it has zero negative effects. At the very least, it will give kids a better shot at being able to handle the curveballs and pandemics that life throws at them. It seems obvious, then, that arts education shouldn’t be limited to those who can afford extra-curricular pottery or dance classes, but that it should be an essential and highly prioritised part of every child’s basic education, and thus a necessary inclusion in public schooling.
The generations before ours, and even our own, is leaving behind a wide range of problems that our kids will have to fix. We may as well make sure they’re prepared for them as best we can. For that, we need to make sure that arts education in schools doesn’t get left by the wayside.