Children love the arts. And engagement in the arts is a universal part of development. Children all over the world create visual art, using sticks and dirt if needed. Pretend play, which can be considered a type of proto-drama, is seen even in cultures where it is not promoted by adults. Music and dance are an integral part of every culture, and children quickly become engaged in both types of activities. Yet participation in the arts is rarely studied in developmental psychology, particularly when compared to other developments of childhood such as reading, numbers, memory, etc.
In a just published article in Child Development (which I co-authored with the fantastic Matthew Lerner and Ellen Winner), we lay out the various reasons, possible problems, and new research on child development and the arts. But in particular, we tie how children’s engagement in arts (as it is already happening in the world) can be linked in to research questions that developmental psychology researchers are interested in. This paper was part of an upcoming special section in the journal Child Development, entitled “Bringing Developmental Science into the World” (edited by Roberta Golinkoff, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Rachel Grob, and Mark Schlesinger)
This combination of developmental science and art is critical, and must be done carefully. Critical because support for the arts is always under attack (see the most recent versions of federal budgets), and each year seems to be bring less access to arts education and the arts for children (this is particularly true for low income areas). And yet, artists, teaching artists, teachers, and parents and arts advocates have long claimed extensive and dramatic positive changes as a result of engaging in the arts. How can such positive changes be scientifically studied and presented to policy makers, boards of education, and other researchers? This is where a need to be careful comes in. Arguments that are not based on evidence fall apart. And by evidence, I mean of course scientific evidence, well done rigorous studies, but also evidence that is based on actual engagement in the arts. If an artist cannot recognize the activities behind the psychological study, or a psychologist cannot recognize the psychological theory behind an artistic activity, than the two disciplines are not integrating well.
The arts provide a strong latent opportunity to study development within a real world context because child engagement in art has developed independently of the science of development. This means not only looking what has historically been the most popular way of justifying the arts (i.e. through increased test scores as a result of engaging in the arts, where most findings are simple correlations), but also looking at activities that are intrinsic to engagement in the arts. Such activities are individualized: by art form (visual arts skills are different than theatre skills) and by level of engagement (serious amateurs in high school work differently than kindergarten classrooms). Importantly, the question of talent in an art form itself is different than investigating what may be happening as a result (called transfer) of engagement in an art form.
We lay out three types of research programs that are doing a good job of combining the art and the science of development:
Taken together, work that combines developmental science and the arts is out there, and is being done well, but needs more support and a careful way forward. There are so many unanswered questions. To name a few:
The arts are a rich area for research by developmental psychologists, and such research must happen in partnership with artists and arts educators. The arts are practically universal, and must have cognitive, social, and emotional correlates and outcomes! A full science of child development must include a science of engaging in the arts.