Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Early Findings about Children’s Rates of Arts Participation

A persistent shortcoming of research in the arts has been a scarcity of large, longitudinal studies that track representative groups of Americans as they engage not only with the arts, but with other life-changing events and behaviors. Even when such data are available, the studies often do not capture a full array of biological, psychological, and social characteristics that would tell us more about the nature and strength of linkages between the arts and individual outcomes in health and education.

Still, for funders and policymakers who must tailor programs and services to distinct age groups, longitudinal research holds special currency. For example, the NEA’s Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development meets quarterly to share and learn how greater evidence about the arts can be integrated effectively with health and educational strategies ranging across the lifespan. Not long ago, Gaya Dowling from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (at the National Institutes of Health, or NIH) explained to the group that new knowledge about how the arts function in teenagers’ lives will be harvested by the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study.

Background: What is the ABCD Study and How Do the Arts Figure in It?

The National Endowment for the Arts is a partner on ABCD, which NIH describes as “the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States.” Working at 21 research sites across the country, researchers will enroll more than 10,000 children aged nine to ten years old and will monitor their “biological and behavioral development through adolescence into young adulthood.” At various points throughout the year, the study participants will undergo assessments, interviews, neuroimaging, and biospecimen collection.

According to NIH, adolescence is a “time of extraordinary physical, emotional, and intellectual growth. It is also a period of increased vulnerability when risky behaviors emerge as youth attempt to navigate an increasingly complex world.” And yet, the study website notes, “there is much we don’t know about how childhood experiences (such as sports, videogames, social media, unhealthy sleep patterns, and smoking) interact with each other and with a child’s changing biology to affect brain development and social, behavioral, academic, health, and other outcomes.”

The arts are a key ingredient of those childhood experiences. The NEA’s Office of Research & Analysis is providing technical consultation to the ABCD study team on research questions and data collection needs that can ensure that childhood exposure to the arts, formally and informally, can be included among the behavioral variables that researchers use in follow-up studies. 

As I’ll discuss below, the ABCD protocols already collect some data about childhood arts participation. But the NEA has been discussing other measures with the study team. Earlier this year, for instance, these talks resulted in a new question-item to understand the degree to which a child’s peers play a role in his or her pursuit or continued involvement with the arts, including music, dance, or theater.

Preliminary Arts Data from the ABCD Study

Back in February, NIH released comprehensive baseline data form the first 4,500 participants in the study. (Raw neuroimaging data from study participants to date are being shared with researchers on an ongoing, “fast-track” basis.) At a recent meeting to update federal partners on the study, Dr. Dowling discussed some of the arts participation statistics, along with other early findings.

Currently, the ABCD study protocols include a few question-items about extracurricular activities in the arts. One asks parents to “please indicate whether your child has EVER participated in any of the following [arts] activities continuously for four months or more.” The activities include dance, music, visual arts, crafts, and theater.

For these activities, other question-items ask whether they occurred within a “group, band, orchestra, chorus, or program” either at or outside school. Further questions ask whether the child received “individual private instruction” for the activities, or whether they were learned “without formal instruction.” The questionnaire also seeks to know how frequently and for how long those activities occurred.

At the meeting with ABCD federal partners, Dr. Dowling shared that a brief analysis of arts data for just over 4,500 children (not the full study cohort, and therefore not reflecting its total diversity) suggests the importance of parental education (a proxy for socioeconomic status) to children’s extracurricular participation in the arts. For dance, music, visual arts, drama, and crafts, children’s participation rates were higher if the parents held bachelor’s degrees than if the parents did not. In the case of music, participation rates were notably higher among children whose parents had graduate or postgraduate training than among children whose parents’ education stopped at college.

Dr. Dowling also showed that children are experiencing these activities in different venues, depending on the art form. Thus, more children participated in dance through an “organized program at school” than in other settings. In the case of music, children who did this activity were equally likely to do so through an organized program in school or through private instruction (and were less likely to do so in out-of-school programs or through non-formal training). For visual arts, the picture is still different. Children were most likely to undertake this activity through informal than formal instruction.

Results from an Independent Analysis

Separately, John Iversen, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego, has shared with me his own analysis of arts participation data from the 4,500 children (again, not the full cohort). By his analysis, the majority (61 percent) of the children in this sample have participated in at least one art form in their lives. Fifty-three percent, meanwhile, have participated in at least one art form in the past year. Of this 53 percent, 59 percent participated in only one of five art forms, 29 participated in two, and 12 percent participated in three or more, according to the analysis.

The relatively high occurrence of arts participation in this sample suggests that there will be sufficient data from the full cohort for investigators ultimately to drill down into other variables interacting with those arts participation rates. That’s good news for long-term research about the arts’ effects.

Dr. Iversen’s analysis breaks down the arts participation rates by art form. Among this initial ABCD cohort, 43 percent of children (average age of the cohort = 10.1 years) did music activities anytime in their lives, and 37 percent in the past year; 25 percent did dance anytime in their lives and 11 percent in the past year; 21 percent did visual art anytime in their lives and 18 percent in the past year; and 11 percent did drama anytime in their lives and 8.5 percent in the past year. In addition, 8.5 percent did craft activities anytime in their lives and 8.4 percent in the past year.

On Sept. 8, Dr. Iversen will participate in a public panel discussion about arts education. Titled “Take Note: Why Arts Education Matters,” the discussion is part of the Sound Health initiative, a partnership between the Kennedy Center and NIH in association with the NEA. Later in August, moreover, the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly will publish a special section focused on the arts. (The section was co-edited by the NEA’s own Melissa Menzer and Adam Winsler, who is also with the NEA Research Lab at George Mason University). Finally, next month will see new research findings from the NEA on arts participation patterns for U.S. adults. Plenty to report, in other words; may this (admittedly oversized) blog post serve as an appetizer.


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