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Children's Appreciation of Art

How kids' scribbling, pretend, and dancing lead to art and theatre appreciation.

Key points

  • Children engage with art, dance, music and theatre in their daily lives.
  • How childhood artistic engagement grows into adult art preferences is not well understood.
  • By age 6, children care about artist intentions and grow to favor virtually the same music and dance preferred by adults.

Children want to make and consume art naturally. They scribble with crayons and paper, play different roles in their pretend, sing, and dance to music. Children have their own version of aesthetic values, their own judgments of the kind of music they want to listen to, and the kinds of television shows they want to watch. But where does this come from? How does it lead to adult preferences for art?

In this post, I explore the questions of how children move from child-like perspectives on art, music, dance, and theatre and into culturally defined perspectives on aesthetics; where their preferences come from originally, and when do they begin to understand that there is a thing such as art that is culturally defined, monetized, and celebrated? This post provides a further discussion on a chapter published in the Oxford Handbook Online.

While theories of aesthetics are becoming more well developed and bridge transdisciplinary work, including neuroscience, cognitive sciences, humanities perspectives, and psychological studies, the developmental perspective on aesthetic reasoning and judgment is missing. Studies of the developmental precursors of adult aesthetic preferences have mostly looked backward: from adult actors to their childhood role plays or adult McArthur genius awardees to imaginary childhood companions.

There are a lot of open questions, including:

  • Is there a difference between children's and adults’ aesthetic reasoning? And is that difference just that children know less than adults about the culture around art, or that they have actually processing or emotional-based differences?
  • How do children’s artistic activities link to adult artistic activities? Are there differences by art form (i.e., how kids develop an understanding and appreciation for dance compared to visual arts)?
  • How are other developmental trajectories, through social, emotional, and cognitive development, in areas such as intention processing, understanding of representation, emotion understanding, and attention linked to the development of aesthetic reasoning?

There is fertile ground for researchers interested in appreciation, understanding, and reactions to art, dance, music, and theater.

Here’s what we do know (in some smaller sub-disciplinary questions):

  • How do children understand the intention in art?
  • When do they read emotions into art?
  • When do they show preferences for some kinds of art over others?

We know that children’s drawings have their own logic (see work by Ellen Winner and others) and that typically developing children play pretend as a way to understand the world. One aspect of art understanding–that artists have intentions and meaning in their creations–seems to develop during preschool.

In preschool, children begin to understand symbols and their uses. Even when two drawings look identical (for example, a balloon and a lollipop), the artist’s belief about drawing matters for what the drawing should be labeled (Bloom & Markson, 1998). By age 4, children consider an artist’s emotional state when deciding how to judge art (Callaghan & Rochat, 2003).

This is also important when thinking about children who might make decisions and think about forgery and copying art, which adults strongly condemn and think of as significantly less valuable than original works. But, no research I know of has looked specifically at children’s beliefs about art forgeries, although we know they appreciate authenticity in other ways, for example, when it comes to duplicating objects using a machine (Hood et al., 2012; Hood & Bloom, 2008).

What about preferences? Early in development (perhaps before formal schooling), children’s appreciation for art is the creation of art, and the creation of art is its appreciation. The way children want embodied, physical experience means that theatre-makers create interactive works for babies, and children’s museums fuse art, science, and play into one activity.

Adults may bemoan Kidz Bop and other music marketed specifically to children, not to mention children's television and film. Still, research shows that infants and adults have similar preferences in visual arts- preferring masterworks to non (Ramachandran & Hirstein, 1999). Children as young as age 4 can distinguish artwork made by artists from children or animals (Nissel et al., 2016). That being said, younger children would rather look at work they understand that contains realistic, representational content than abstract content (to be fair, many adults feel the same way) (Kuscevic et al., 2014). Children also show preferences to the music their parents play for them (showing an effect of familiarity) and preference for tonal music and consonance (Nieminen et al., 2012).

These preferences may come from children’s emotional responses to art. We know that preschool children can recognize emotions in art as early as age 3 (Pouliou, Bonoti, & Nikonanou, 2018) and that 6-year-olds can use rhythm and meter to determine the emotions in a work of music, but that younger children cannot (Kratus, 1993). It may be that visual processing of emotion is trained earlier or more direct and representational than musical processing of emotion, which is necessarily more abstract.

Interestingly, dance movements seem to give children a real insight into emotions, with children as young as age 5 able to perform emotional tasks and adults (Lagerlöf & Djerf 2009). We also know that children may have aesthetic emotions such as joy, disgust, empathy, and awe in response to art. Still, unfortunately, linguistic restrictions on how well children can express themselves may stop researchers from measuring these kinds of emotional experiences that adults show in response to art.

So, where does this leave us?

Children’s art has its own beauty and meaning, and children are never too young to be able to engage, at their own levels, in dance, play, theatre, music, and visual arts. But scientific, psychological, and developmental research is far behind the levels, and types of experiences children are actually having.

There is no research investigating how aesthetic appreciation develops from the relatively universal childhood artistic activities of moving one's body, singing lullabies, scribbling, and pretend play. How does a child get from engaging in or looking at art to having an adult aesthetic appreciation when not an artist?

But also, when are children not appreciating the artistic and aesthetic qualities of the world around them? Children live in a world of color, shape, movement, song, and pretend play. Their lives are necessarily artistic, as might be defined by adults. While they may not be judging these experiences as artistic, they are engaging with them in a way that adults may engage with the arts. This global attention to the environment, like Gopnik, 2016 puts it as “lantern consciousness” rather than an adult-like “spotlight consciousness,” creates input to children that will necessarily shape their understanding of the arts. The trick, then, becomes keeping that interest and enjoyment as young children grow into adults.


Bloom, P., & Markson, L. (1998). Intention and analogy in children’s naming of pictorial representations. Psychological Science, 9(3), 200.

Gopnik, A. (2016). The gardener and the carpenter: What the new science of child development tells us about the relationship between parents and children. Macmillan.

Hood, B. M., & Bloom, P. (2008). Children prefer certain individuals over perfect duplicates. Cognition, 106(1), 455–462.

Winner, E. (1996). Gifted children (Vol. 1). New York: Basic Books.

Ramachandran, V. S., & Hirstein, W. (1999). The science of art: A neurological theory of aesthetic experience. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6(6–7), 15–51.

Callaghan, T. C., & Rochat, P. (2003). Traces of the artist: Sensitivity to the role of the artist in children’s pictorial reasoning. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 21(3), 415–445.

Pouliou, D., Bonoti, F., & Nikonanou, N. (2018). Do Preschoolers Recognize The Emotional Expressiveness of Colors in Realistic and Abstract Art Paintings? The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 179(2), 53–61.

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