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Arts and early childhood development focus of new NEA research

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Young children raise their hands above their heads as they take part in a dance class

The organization Creative Action works with students in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of Creative Action.

Washington, DC—In their first years, children experience rapid and important emotional, physical, and cognitive growth. What role do the arts play in early childhood development? A new report from the National Endowment for the Arts looks at research on how the arts affect young children from birth to age eight. The news is good, but several research questions remain, according to this literature review. 

The Arts in Early Childhood: Social and Emotional Benefits of Arts Participation: A Literature Review and Gap-Analysis (2000-2015) synthesized findings from 18 recent reports in psychology and education research journals. These studies focused on the social and emotional outcomes of young children who participated in art forms such as music, dance, theater, drawing, and painting. These quantitative studies looked at typically developing populations, as well as children with autism spectrum disorder. Among the findings:

Social skills and the arts – several studies revealed positive associations between arts activities and developing social skills, such as helping, sharing, caring, and empathizing with others.

  • Parents who reported singing to their child at least three times a week were more likely to report that their child had strong and sophisticated social skills. Children assigned to an eight-week dance group demonstrated improvements in social skill development and reductions in anxiety and aggression compared to a control group.

Emotional regulation and the arts – studies showed that the arts help children regulate their emotions, a critical skill for well-adjusted children and adults. 

  • Infants who participated in a six-month active music group with singing and dancing had better emotional regulation behaviors than did infants in a passive music group, where music was played in the background while infants did other activities.
  • In another study, children were asked to think of a past negative event. Some of those children then were instructed to draw a house to distract themselves; the other children were instructed either to draw the negative event or to copy another drawing. The children who drew to distract were better able to improve their mood compared to the other children.

The role of demographics and development disorders – how do age, gender, income, and development disorders such as autism affect arts learning outcomes? 

  • Gender is an important attribute in child development; however, this review did not find gender differences in the link between the arts and social-emotional outcomes.
  • Toddlers from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds who were in schools that included an arts integration program had more positive emotional expression and improved emotional regulation over the course of the school year when compared to a control group of low SES toddlers.
  • Autism, which is usually diagnosed by age three, is a neurological development disorder that impairs social skills, language, and communications. In one study, autistic children ages three to five had more positive outcomes (such as making and maintaining eye contact) when they participated in music sessions than when they took part in play sessions.

The Next Generation of Arts Research

What remains to be done? The report identifies gaps in our understanding of the effects of arts learning on early childhood and social-emotional outcomes. These research gaps also apply to arts research on other age groups and other domains of human development, such as physiological and cognitive growth, which were not examined in this report. The review challenges the research community to address methodological challenges, and to pursue more experimental studies, more reliable and standardized measurement tools, more detailed measurement of the complex nature of social-emotional development, and more large-scale studies.

NEA Research

As the federal agency of record on arts research, the NEA is leading efforts to investigate the arts as a tool for learning, health, and well-being across the lifespan. The NEA’s Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development convenes federal agencies to share research, resources, and best practices on arts, learning, and health research, producing public webinars, symposia, and reports. NEA research grants investigate the value and impact of the arts, including its effects on learning and health. Final reports are available here. Other NEA research publications in the areas of learning and well-being include The Arts and Aging - Building the Science and The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies.

About the National Endowment for the Arts

Established by Congress in 1965, the NEA is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts and the agency is celebrating this milestone with events and activities through September 2016. Go to arts.gov/50th to enjoy art stories from around the nation, peruse Facts & Figures, and check out the anniversary timeline. 

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