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Why Arts Education for Children Can Change the World

Cambodia’s revitalized arts programs can teach us how to heal

Ask Arn Chorn-Pond, a former child soldier who helped start Cambodian Living Arts, an organization teaching children across his impoverished country classical dance, music and the visual arts, if arts education for children matters and you'll get the emphatic answer, "Yes". I'm in Cambodia this week and learning that there are dozens of nongovernmental organizations in Cambodia doing what they can to reinvigorate the arts in a country where 30 years ago the Pol Pot regime murdered 90% of all artists and intellectuals. The Killing Fields are full of those who carried with them in their bones centuries of traditions.

I've seen arts based education being used with northern Aboriginal children, Brazilian children growing up in slums, Palestinian youth in refugee camps, Israeli children living on the border with Lebanon, and children in the shantytowns of South Africa. I've also seen my own children thrive from opportunities to learn an instrument or perform in a play. And yet, we so seldom imagine our schools and communities as places where the arts are part of what makes our children more resilient.

Last night I watched a performance of young people who had been studying years to learn the ancient dance and music forms of their ancestors. It was a moonlit night and we were seated in front of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Amid the stage lights, I watched adolescents transform themselves into monkeys and dancers that look as elegant as the relief sculptures that adorn the Angkor Wat temples just outside Siem Reap in northern Cambodia.

It was magical, not just because it was beautiful, but also because the day before I'd walked through the squalor of the streets where those children live. There is poverty here that would stop the most hardy from having hope. And yet these youth leave their one room family homes and practice, practice, practice, striving to assert their heritage and find a powerful source of identity and self-esteem. There are other groups here too, also integrating the arts into their work. Friends International provides services for street youth. Ragamuffin House provides art therapy to those who suffer the trauma of parents who beat them or drink to overcome the pain of remembering their past.

Can we prevent future genocides by teaching children art? Can we heal decade old wounds by ensuring that children have a secure connection to their artistic heritage? Cambodia is teaching us how important art can be to our children's resilience. I wonder if the west is willing to learn from less developed countries what all children need.