Originally published in print and online by Washington Parent in August 2015.
In the long-contested debate over the role of the arts in education, researchers, policymakers, educators and parents all seem to fall into one of two camps. There are those who believe an arts-based curriculum bolsters academic achievement in core subjects, and those who proclaim such a system is irrelevant to academic success. Still, there is another song to sing about arts education – a possible middle ground, already present in many schools, where arts enrichment can be used as a teaching tool that plays a crucial role in how students learn.
A core curriculum that is infused with techniques from the arts allows teachers to present traditional information in a new or creative way through enrichment activities. This interdisciplinary learning environment may strike a chord with some students and help them gain mastery of core concepts, such as math and reading.
In 2013, research from the Arts Education Partnership showed that arts enrichment can help some students make huge gains in the classroom. Enrichment activities involve using hands-on, project-based learning to expand on common teaching methods. Having kindergarteners produce a dramatic, theatrical retelling of a picture book, for example, is an enrichment activity that the Arts Education Partnership highlighted as a mechanism to help students begin to develop word fluency and reading comprehension skills.
Jacqueline Banks, founder and director of the National Conservatory of Arts, highlighted some additional benefits of arts education and student involvement.
“Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking and verbal skill,” Banks says. “Arts learning can also improve motivation, concentration and teamwork.”
It is also important to note that activities like the storybook exercise are not unique to early childhood, and can sweep across all levels of education. Musical notes can be used as an enrichment tool to teach the often difficult concept of fractions, while a student-written skit about a historical figure may resonate more than a reading passage or lecture.
While these teaching methods are easy to implement in the classroom, there is plenty to be done outside the school day, too.
Arts Enrichment Programs
Arts enrichment activities in school – like drawing a diagram to represent a scientific concept or writing a short story for a history lesson – give children a great opportunity during the school day to explore interests that are often thought of as extracurricular. Not only can these activities be learning tools for some students in the classroom, they can be avenues for further connection to the arts.
Lola Lombard is the founder of the year-round arts day camp, Lola’s Laboratory in Arlington, which is just one of the many after-school arts enrichment programs available in the metro area. At Lola’s Lab, students explore stories through various mediums, including drama, creative writing and invention.
“The goal of Lola’s Lab is to foster imaginative, kind and flexible thinkers in a fun and supportive environment where ideas are not judged and artistic risk-taking is encouraged,” says Lombard, mother of 11-year-old Annabelle, who aspires to be an artist and performer.
After school arts programs like those at Lola’s Lab and the National Conservatory of Arts, have proven to be worthwhile for many areas of children’s lives. The Arts Education Partnership lists a number of lasting benefits for children involved in arts programs, including perseverance, cross-cultural understanding and appreciation, and creative community building.
Lombard notes some additional benefits she has seen through her own program.
“Arts enrichment can be a huge asset to a child’s development, providing skills and experiences that are critical in life,” she says. “By fostering a child’s personal expression and growth, they can be happy, confident, expressive, flexible individuals in their community.”
Despite the notable benefits of out-of-school programming, both Lombard and Banks recognize that affordability is one of its main issues. Lola’s Lab has partnered with Arlington County to assist those who may need financial assistance, noting the importance of local investment in the arts for the benefit of the entire community. Banks sees similar issues in the division of the availability of arts programs within the District.
“Most troubling is an ‘equity gap’ between the availability of arts instruction as well as the richness of course offerings for students in low-poverty schools compared to those in high-poverty schools, leading students who are economically disadvantaged to not get the enrichment experiences of affluent students,” Banks says.
For this reason, Banks has established branches of the National Conservatory of Arts in all four quadrants of the District to bring music, art, dance and theater opportunities to all students.
Nevertheless, even if your child may not be interested in an arts enrichment program outside of school, there are many ways to continue using the arts as a learning technique at home.
Arts Enrichment at Home
Parents can get more involved in their child’s learning by creating arts-related activities at home so their child’s learning does not stop with the conclusion of the school day. A crafty and creative afternoon can easily be turned into an expansion of a school day lesson.
Scholastic is a great resource for parents, as its website offers numerous ideas for at-home learning opportunities. For example, if your child is learning about the environment, make a bird feeder together using materials collected from nature. Give your child the freedom to be creative in the feeder’s design, and then use the activity to spark a conversation about environmental consciousness, and how the bird feeder will be useful to birds throughout the changing seasons.
All of these methods for adding arts enrichment to a child’s learning routine show that opportunities for learning can happen anywhere. Arts enrichment activities, both in and out of school, can be avenues of exploration, success and even lifelong interest in the arts.
“Children need to know that the uniqueness of their ideas matter at every age,” says Lombard. “The creative products that are expressed by a child give him a lasting example of the unique effect they have upon the world. This creative process produces a person who is wise, open-minded and confident.”