Enriching Early Childhood Experiences by Integrating the Arts

Enriching Early Childhood Experiences by Integrating the Arts
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A Wolf Trap residency session "in action" with Teaching Artist Sue Trainor (left) and special guests Jane Chu, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Arvind Manocha, president and CEO of Wolf Trap. Students are practicing participatory learning and self-regulation (raising hands) during Trainor's arts-integrated lesson. (Photo courtesy Traci Medlock)

RCEd Commentary

How do we give our children the best possible start in school and in life?

As polarizing as the ongoing national debates over education policy and state standards might be, they’re all aimed at answering that same basic question. Some say we need more creativity in classrooms, others demand more instructional rigor. Some are adamant that free play is the answer; others suggest we focus on STEM. But despite the rancor in education policy debates, educators of many different perspectives can agree that high quality early childhood education is essential to answering that question.

A wide body of research demonstrates that high-quality early learning has a bigger return on investment than almost any other educational intervention. Nobel laureate James J. Heckman has documented that early development improves the health, economic, and social outcomes of children with lasting effects into adulthood. Northwestern University professor Greg Duncan’s research revealed that the single greatest predictor of later learning is early math skills, after controlling for a child’s family and socioeconomic status. In fact, early math skills are a more powerful predictor of subsequent reading achievement than even early reading skills, according to Duncan’s research.

I’ve also found in my own work in education that integrating the performing arts—music, drama, and dance—into the full curriculum, including math and other STEM subjects, helps young students learn better. Arts-integrated teaching taps into children’s innate desire for active learning through the senses. By singing, dancing, imagining, and connecting their bodies and minds, children learn more deeply and meaningfully, including and especially in math and science.

The arts, in other words, are proven tools to fuel children’s critical thinking skills as they become invested in, and excited about, learning. Carefully crafted experiences using arts-integrated teaching methods can produce substantial gains in math learning for pre-K to first-grade students. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama simultaneously called for improvements in high-quality preschool and STEM education.

A new analysis released earlier this month from a recent study by the American Institutes for Research confirmed that an arts-integrated teaching method can boost learning in subjects other than the arts themselves. AIR’s study of 18 elementary schools in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools found that in the first year of a Wolf Trap Institute initiative focused on arts-integrated STEM learning, preschool and kindergarten students gained the equivalent of 1.3 months of additional math learning, compared to their peers in the control group schools. In the second year of the study, students gained 1.7 additional months, or an extra 34 days of learning in math, even though not all students in the second year continued in classrooms with teachers participating in the program. That is roughly equivalent to extending the school year by five to seven weeks for pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade students.

These gains are the result of our arts-education professional development model developed over decades of practice and research: Early childhood educators are paired with professional teaching artists—musicians, dancers, actors, or puppeteers—to train through classroom residencies. The teacher receives hands-on experience, working side by side with the teaching artist to develop arts-based skills and discover how to bring innovative, high quality lessons to preschool and kindergarten students through singing, dancing, role-playing, storytelling, and other activities grounded in the performing arts.

In the arts-integration movement, there is still a lot to explore about how well arts-based methods help prepare young children for success in school. We want to learn more about and document how this unique approach may promote important non-cognitive skills like emotional regulation. We also want to build on the preliminary evidence that our arts-integrated learning program boosts early reading skills as well as math skills.

While there is more to learn about arts in education, it is time to recognize the important role arts-integrated teaching methods can and should play in the expansion of high quality early childhood learning in the United States. Arts education, we now know, is not a frill or luxury in preschool and kindergarten but rather an invaluable tool for improving school readiness and strengthening STEM skills. Thankfully, high quality arts-integrated learning is an investment that pays dividends—for parents, for teachers, but most of all for young children.

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