My 6-year-old daughter has been exposed to the arts regularly since the beginning of her life. Her mom has ensured that regular creative outlets include: painting, pottery, photography, sculpture, ballet, piano, violin etc. Our daughter is very lucky. Unfortunately, funding for arts programs is always one of the first budgets to be cut. Ironically, the long term economic toll of depriving American children of creative outlets could dramatically reduce GDP in years to come and harm the United States’ ability to stay competitive in a global economy.
A new study from Michigan State University found that childhood participation in arts and crafts leads to innovation, patents, and increases the odds of starting a business as an adult. The researchers found that people who own businesses or patents received up to eight times more exposure to the arts as children than the general public.
In the study, which is published in the most recent edition of the journal Economic Development Quarterly, the researchers defined “childhood” as up to 14 years old. The team of multidisciplinary researchers studied a group of MSU Honors College graduates from 1990 to 1995 who majored in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or STEM.
“The most interesting finding was the importance of sustained participation in those activities,” said Rex LaMore, director of MSU’s Center for Community and Economic Development. “If you started as a young child and continued in your adult years, you’re more likely to be an inventor as measured by the number of patents generated, businesses formed or articles published. And that was something we were surprised to discover.”
Creativity in Childhood Leads to Innovation in Adulthood
If you look at the mavericks of science and technology you will see a pattern of creative outlets being a key to their childhood. Creative activity in childhood rewires your brain to think out-of-the-box according to the researchers. In fact, the group reported using artistic skills—such as analogies, playing, intuition and imagination—are all key to to solving complex problems. This is common sense, but it’s good to have economic researchers validate the importance of the arts.
Steve Jobs’ father worked as a mechanic and a carpenter, and taught his son rudimentary electronics and how to work with his hands. From a young age Steve Jobs worked on electronics in the family garage. His dad taught him how to take apart and rebuild electronics such as radios and televisions. As a result, Jobs developed a hobby of technical tinkering. Steve Jobs actually dropped out of college after 6 months and spent the next 18 months taking creative classes, and became obsessed with calligraphy. These influences all went into creating Apple computer.
Musical training in childhood also seems to be important for cultivating a creative and innovative mind. It’s no coincidence that Albert Einstein played the violin religously since childhood. The researchers found 93% of the STEM graduates reported musical training at some point in their lives, as compared to only 34% of average adults, as reported by the National Endowment for the Arts. The STEM graduates also reported higher-than-average involvement in the visual arts, acting, dance and creative writing.
In addition, those who had been exposed to metal work and electronics during childhood were 42% more likely to own a patent than those without exposure, while those involved in architecture were 87.5% more likely to form a company. The study found that children with a photography background were 30% more likely to have a patent.
“The skills you learn from taking things apart and putting them back together translate into how you look at a product and how it can be improved,” said Eileen Roraback, of MSU’s Center for Integrative Studies in the Arts and Humanities. “And there’s creative writing. In our study, a biologist working in the cancer field, who created a business, said her writing skills helped her to write business plans and win competitions.”
Conclusion: Funding Childhood Art Programs Will Improve the U.S. Economy
The researchers conclude that, “The results of the study could be crucial to rebuilding the U.S. economy.” Rex LaMore believes, “Inventors are more likely to create high-growth, high-paying jobs in our state, and that’s the kind of target we think we should be looking for. So we better think about how we support artistic capacity, as well as science and math activity, so that we have these outcomes.”
If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:
*I'm an Angel painting above is by Trevor Mikula. Thanks, Trevor!