Guest Article Written By: Kristin Lems
It seems that almost every week, a new article appears showing the positive effects of the arts on children’s success and happiness in school. At the Edutopia website, for example, we can see a report about how an arts integration initiative at Bates Middle School in Annapolis, Maryland, has correlated with dramatically higher reading and math scores and lower suspension rates. The National Endowment for the Arts reported in March that “in-school or extracurricular programs offering deep arts involvement may help to narrow the gap in achievement levels among youth.” And the multiple benefits to the fifth graders in the legendary PS22 Chorus, at the largest elementary school in Staten Island, extend far beyond the children’s inspirational performances.
It’s not only that the arts can fill up a hole in the day, or the week, and keep kids busy with socially engaging activities. It’s also the way the arts can build confidence, increase motivation, lengthen attention span, and provide a safe outlet for strong feelings that may have no other place to go. Says Gregg Breinberg, or “Mr. B,” the PS22 choral director, of the students, “These kids come from families who are having a tough time economically…they have a hard time expressing themselves with words, but through this choral experience, there’s so much emotion there, both coming from them and the people watching them.” Offering arts classes for at-risk youth is even more important than for middle income children because middle class parents are likely to introduce the arts to their children whether or not arts are offered in the curriculum, but for children in poverty, school may be their only exposure.
There is tremendous public enthusiasm and support all around the country for having arts offerings occupy a central place in schools. The School Board of Los Angeles, probably home to more musicians per square block than any other place in the country, recently voted to insure large, cut-proof funding increases for the arts, after recognizing that arts funding in their own schools had declined by 40% over the past 4 years! Yet these life-sustaining, nurturing activities are too often relegated to “specials” – optional parts of the curriculum that come or go as budgets permit. It’s like making sunshine optional! For all of their power to inspire and motivate children, the arts continue to be the first line items cut in the mania for higher standardized test scores.
The broad positive effects of the arts last into adult life and play an increasingly influential role in the quality of life for seniors. On a personal note, I wrote this after having returned from singing for preschoolers at two Montessori schools. The delight, wonder, and total absorption the children expressed today as they worked hard to execute new rhythms, hand movements, and melodies reminded me, as it does every week, that something very important is happening in that circle of children on that rug, not just for them, but for me! It lightens my day and cheers my life! Have you, too, been touched by the arts? If you have, remember how it feels, and make extra sure that your local school provides that joyful experience for the children where you live.
Kristin Lems, Ed.D. is a professor and professional folksinger in the Chicago area.