Household or Community Dynamics Affecting Children’s Engagement with Art

By Sunil Iyengar
graphic that says Measure for Measure. On the left side of the graphic, there are hatchmarks that suggest bar graphs

Just in time for the school year, the U.S. Department of Education has updated its set of key indicators that monitor the “Condition of Education” in this country, based on ongoing data collection and reporting from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Where, you might ask, is the art in that? Literally, it resides in an indicator category known as “Family Characteristics,” with new stats about the “Educational Expectations and Involvement of Parents in Rural Areas.” Click the tab for this sub-category on the Department’s website, and see two bar charts displaying percentages of the nation’s children—between kindergarten and fifth grade (K-5)—whose parents did arts and cultural activities with them. The events are described as “educational,” and include going to museums or performing arts events, and doing arts and crafts or engaging in storytelling.

The charts break out the data by community type. So, while 28 percent of K-5 children in 2019 had parents who had taken them to art galleries, museums, or historical sites in the past month, 34 percent of urban kids had this experience, and only 20 percent of rural-dwellers had. Similar differences applied to the relative percentages of children whose parents had taken them to performing arts events: 27 percent of rural versus 35 percent of urban children.

By contrast, the share of K-5 children whose parents took them to an event sponsored by a “community, religious, or ethnic group” was relatively high, and nearly the same for urban and rural children alike: hovering at the national rate of 53 percent. (These events need not have been arts-centric.) When it comes to the share of K-5 children whose parents told them a story, or who did arts and crafts with them, roughly equal numbers arose for urban and rural children alike—70-75 percent for storytelling, and 74-78 percent for craft activities.

Arts and cultural funders and policy-makers can use these indicators, in addition to other metrics and data sources, to identify and address regional and demographic gaps in service. New data on parental involvement in arts educational activities will be available as part of the NEA’s 2022 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts release later this year.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education data (from the National Household Education Surveys) earlier reported on the comparably high rates of Hispanic children whose parents took them to visit an art gallery, a museum, or historical site: 38 percent versus the national rate of 28 percent. We also learned about the high rates of Asian children whose parents took them to libraries (63 percent versus 43 percent of all K-5 children) and Native American children whose parents did craft activities with them (87 percent, compared with the national rate of 75 percent).

It’s one thing to consider how household, family, and community characteristics might shape arts education patterns among children. It’s still another to inquire how these factors might mediate the development of cognitive capacity among children who receive an arts education early in life.

A recent study, published in the journal Behavior Genetics, explores the “Heritability of Childhood Music Engagement and Associations with Language and Executive Function.” The authors use data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, which is supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NEA is a federal partner on ABCD. Research for the article itself was funded by NIH, the NEA, and the National Science Foundation. The article weighs the relative contributions of genetic and environmental factors in predisposing 9-10-year-olds to musical instrument-playing and/or music-listening. It also examines the relationships between music engagement and the development of language and executive function (i.e., specific cognitive control abilities), and how these links may be strengthened by environmental influences.

The researchers analyzed data from parental reports and cognitive/language tests involving nearly 11,900 children (aged 9 or 10), of which more than 1,500 were twins. The study found that “shared environmental factors (e.g., school programs, teachers, peer groups, and neighborhood-level factors)” accounted for most of the variation in children’s exposure to music and the frequency of their engagement with it.

Further, associations between music exposure (having sang or played an instrument in the last two months) and language and executive function were noted, but there were no apparent links between the frequency of music engagement and those cognitive abilities. Also, the associations were stronger for exposure to musical instrument-playing (including singing) than for any other music or non-music activity (i.e., listening to music, playing soccer, or engaging with visual art).

As far as whether nature or nurture plays a bigger role, the article finds that “associations of language and executive function with musical instrument exposure appear driven by shared environmental influences.” But we can’t write off genetics just yet. The authors emphasize “passive gene-environment correlations [that] occur when parents create an environment based on their genetic characteristics.”

By way of explanation, they offer: “[A] parent who carries many genetic influences relating to heightened musical perception and production abilities…may be much more likely to own musical instruments and listen to music for pleasure…and therefore expose their children to music and musical instruments earlier in life.”

As children grow into teenagers and young adults, moreover, it is possible that genetics start to assume a greater factor in their proclivity to engage with music; this is because they gain more autonomy and become less reliant on parental and school-level dynamics affecting musical choices.

At the close of their article, the authors give a qualified endorsement for music engagement, and the household, school-level, or neighborhood factors that enable it, as a means to promote growth in other life-skills.  “To the extent that these results reflect truly environmental associations between music engagement and language” or executive function, the authors write, “they highlight music engagement as an accessible environmental intervention which may be beneficial for many children’s cognitive development.”

Frequenters of scientific literature will recognize, in the phrases “to the extent that” and “may be beneficial,” the cautionary strokes typical of the genre. One may even find amusement in the thought of banging on a drum-kit as “an accessible environmental intervention.” Still, the article highlights a need to optimize the family-, school-, and neighborhood-level dynamics that most effectively can foster a climate of music-learning. Indeed, a systems approach to arts education is at the heart of the NEA’s “collective impact” grants program in arts education.

Co-authors of the Behavior Genetics article included two scientists connected to NEA Research Labs: John Iversen (then at the University of California San Diego), and Miriam Lense, Vanderbilt University Medical School. On November 1, from 12:00 to 1:00 pm ET, Iversen and NIH’s Gaya Dowling will participate in a webinar to discuss the ABCD study and researcher access to data on arts participation. The event will be hosted by the National Archive of Data on Arts & Culture (NADAC). Check the NADAC website soon for details!

Sunil Iyengar directs the Office of Research & Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts.