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Child Development

Contexts for the Arts in Child Development

These situations, settings, and contexts matter for children's arts engagement.

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This blog is cross-posted on the Mason Arts Research Center Blog and was co-written with Kaylee Chulla, M.A. student, George Mason University.

When thinking about how engaging in the arts may positively impact child development, it's important to clarify what we mean by "arts" and what we mean by "engagement." This begins with an exploration of the various ways in which children engage in the arts. The stereotypes of engaging in the arts—a school band or play, an art classroom with easels, or a Saturday morning dance class—don’t apply for every child or every art domain. There are many ways in which children engage in artistic activities, and any or all could have different effects on children, depending on the context, the activity, and the art form.

Children’s development through engaging in arts activities, such as dance, painting, plays, and music, has long been a topic of study and question of interest to educators, arts professionals, psychologists, and parents. While the questions of what the arts do for kids, how they change children and helps them, and why the arts are an important aspect of education are critical to explore, there is a very first step that needs to be taken: What do we mean when we say “The Arts and Education”? There is no one singular way to engage in “the arts,” and each art form has multiple different forms of participation. Below, we explore the various different ways in which children can come into contact with the arts in their development, and various factors that are equivalent and nonequivalent across these ways of engaging with the arts. Here, we look at the landscape of context. Children engage with the arts in different situations, settings, environments, and contexts throughout their lives. These different contexts may or may not have different impacts on children’s development, depending on where we’re looking: psychological, social, academic, or cognitive. Only by delineating these contexts and exploring them, both individually and in intersecting ways, will we begin to answer the question of how the arts affect development.

Six contexts in which children can engage in the arts

While there are most likely a much larger number of total contexts for engaging with the arts, we begin with six primary modes:

1. Private arts classes

In private classes, children are taken outside of the school system. Often the child is engaging one-on-one with an art instructor (i.e., a piano teacher, a painting lesson, a dance teacher). However, such private lessons can also occur in small groups with an instructor (i.e., group theatre, dance, and art lessons, or studio music and movement classes). In these contexts, there is typically a requirement of not only parental resources but also child interest for participation, both of which likely affect subsequent positive outcomes.

2. Art education within school

These are often classes offered to students within school hours, sometimes required within daily schedules, particularly in the younger grades. Art education in school is most often music and visual art. In the later grades, student can sign up for an arts elective class (i.e., visual art, orchestra, band, chorus). Depending on resources and art form, schools may offer regular, rare, or no such opportunities. The resources of a school district play a large role in the quality and quantity of arts education within schools. Only 81 percent of schools that have a majority of students on free or reduced lunch offer music programs within the school, and these schools are even less likely to offer theatre, dance, or visual arts. This is a 19 percent decrease from 1999, when 100 percent of these types of schools offered music programs.

3. Extracurricular or after-school activities

Arts education and participation can also occur as activities after school hours, often tied to the school. This can include orchestra, school plays, dance classes, marching band practice, and visual art clubs. These are mostly conducted within group settings rather than one-on-one instruction. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 75 percent of elementary school students are doing such after-school arts activities, with a large percent of that (46 percent) being choir or band practices.

4. Arts integrated into other lessons

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts defines art integration as “an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both.” Examples of this may include making a dance about the skeletal system or singing a song about the solar system. Arts integration is typically located within a standard classroom and done by either a teaching artist or, after much-specialized training, a regular classroom teacher. Often, these lessons show increased outcomes within the target academic subject area, such as causal evidence for increases in vocabulary and English learning in drama-integrated English classrooms (Pozdlony, 2000).

5. Arts used for breaks or rewards within classrooms

Teachers sometimes give “brain breaks” or rewards for doing well in class that are based in the arts. These can include arts such as playing with clay, coloring or watching an interactive music video (i.e., GoNoodle videos). They are less likely to include drama or playing music, and are often movement based.

6. Art done at home

Finally, coloring, finger painting, singing, and dancing to music comes second nature to children. Children naturally engage in such artistic activities. Younger kids, who do not have much homework, will often immediately engage in some of these activities by themselves or with a parent. Parents can both provide the resources to engage with the arts, and participate with the children in various art forms.

Elements Within Contexts

Within these contexts, there are multiple ways in which a child’s art experience can be individualized. Arts engagement can be classified as:

1. Groups Versus Individual

Children can participate in lessons individually or in a group. This differentiates private music lessons from band practice or individual acting lessons from a theatre company practicing together. There could be different benefits to group versus individual art engagement given differences in the types of social interactions afforded.

2. Educational Bases

Arts lessons can also be separated by whether the child is engaging in art as its own subject, or whether it is built into their other subjects, including the integration of the arts into other subjects. A child could be making their own songs about the material they are studying in another class or drawing pictures that will help them remember a storyline. Integrating art into other core lessons is sometimes feared to be a distraction to the direct lesson rather than enhancing the material, but most research shows it may help motivate and engage students who might not otherwise engage in the material.

3. Parent or Student Driven

Who initiates art engagement? Is the parent signing their child up for art classes, or is the student reaching out of their own interests to be engaged in the arts? Student-driven arts engagement may be more impactful than parent-driven because it has greater meaning and connection to the child, but also children may not know how to initiate engagement in the arts.

4. In School or Outside of School Hours

There also may be differences by art forms depending on whether the students have a choice for participation within the school day, or whether they’ve signed up for activities outside of school hours. This includes required courses and electives that the student may choose out of a group of other options. Research knows very little about the differences between in- versus out-of-school arts engagement.

5. Assignments Versus Done During Free Time

Whether children must engage in an artistic activity through homework compared to it being a free choice may also affect arts outcomes. Is the child engaging in an art form because they have been assigned the task for homework? Or is the child choosing to do this on their own time, and this will not count for a grade towards a class?

6. Whether the Art Is Paid for or Free

Arts engagement can be free through community centers or after-school activities. But other types of classes may require a fee to be paid to be able to participate in the activities. This will alter which types of students from which backgrounds can engage in the art form.

7. Accidental Versus Intentional

Children may also not realize that they are engaging in the arts because of the social context which they are in. Students can intentionally go to an art class. However, there is also the possibility that a group of children are making a dance routine after school for fun and do not realize that they are actively engaging in an art form.

What does this mean for research on the effects of arts?

It is possible that none of these contexts could have a particular effect on the development of children. This would mean that regardless of context, arts engagement leads to particular outcomes. However, this is unlikely. It’s more likely that the factors outlined above (e.g., paid or free, parent or student driven) are critical factors for understanding the effects of the arts on children. Each contextual factor could also combine and intersect with other factors in interesting ways. Do certain contexts offer more engagement than others? Do some contexts improve quality of life? Do some promote more academic achievement? It’s both complex and important that contextual factors are considered when investigating the transfer from engagement in the arts to educational, psychological, and developmental outcomes.


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