© Aliona Zbughin | Dreamstime.com
A box of new crayons, a mound of clay, a violin in its case — all of these objects have the potential to make art, but without the creativity of a powerful brain, they are merely lifeless objects. Our growing children have powerful brains and when they exercise them by studying, making, or exploring the arts, the benefits can be wide-ranging.
“One of my favorite quotes is from Plato,” says Susan Van Dyck, music teacher at the University of Memphis’ Campus School. “He said: ‘Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.’ We’ve been aware of this for centuries, but we are still looking for answers about the real function of music in the educational process. We talk about preparing students for jobs and to be good citizens, but we should also be preparing them to be fully developed human beings who can appreciate art, music, and beauty at a deep level, not just surface entertainment.”
In the early years of brain development, when neural connections are being made at the most rapid rate of an individual’s life, much of a child’s self-expression can be seen as a natural form of art.
“When you think about children and play — singing and dancing or making art and painting, those are the kinds of things that come to mind,” says Kathy Dumlao, director of education and interpretation at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. “These are natural things that kids want to do, and it’s play but it’s also developing motor skills, it’s developing language skills, it’s developing decision making, and being creative.”
Even during the early years, arts exposure can be a form of self-expression. An 18-month-old with a box of crayons can be messy, but her tangled doodles have something to say. The red splotch struck through with green lines? That’s grandma’s house, a favorite place to visit. The blue mess with yellow streaks? That’s the bad day at day care yesterday.
Exploring the arts with children opens the door to discussing new ideas and talking about the world around them. “If a pre-verbal child is in a museum with their parents, the adults can use it as an opportunity to talk about shapes, look for colors, and talk about textures,” says Dumlao. “Talking about works of art, even if they aren’t yet able to talk back, kids are able to absorb those experiences and learn from them.”
Even if children get a steady stream of arts exposure at school, parents should keep the arts experiences flowing. Areas of the brain are exercised by creative play, so offer a washable colored pencils and paper after school, set up a weekend finger-painting station, or gather leaves and color over them to discover their patterns. Many parents dedicate a drawer or a cabinet to art supplies, giving their kids access whenever the muse comes calling. Does someone at home play a musical instrument? Those come in kid sizes, too, and children love to play with them.
“Making art also encourages kids to take risks and encourages them to solve problems in creative ways,” says Dumlao. “They learn to draw on their own experiences and things that they have done before that helped them problem solve, or think about things in a new way. There are many non-artistic benefits that come from making art. It helps develop a lifelong sense of curiosity.”
The end result of a toddler’s art session may be a pasta and cotton ball elephant to hang on the fridge, but these arts experiences accumulate in the creative corners of their growing brain. Regular self-expression sets them free to be themselves, and to thrive in that role.