Blog post

How the arts can support children’s development

This week is Children’s Art Week (9-17 June) and, to celebrate this event, arts-based activities will run throughout the UK to give children the opportunity to engage in creative activity. Jenny Hallam, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, talks about the importance of art in children’s development and how parents can encourage self-expression.

By Dr Jenny Hallam - 11 June 2018

Children’s Art Week reflects the consensus within academic and educational communities that art has a number of benefits for children.

Art activities give children a much-needed chance to express their ideas, build on their observational skills, gain confidence, promote feelings of self-worth and develop their creativity and imagination, as well as offering them time to relax.

These benefits were evident in a piece of research I conducted, which explored the ways in which art was taught in two Staffordshire primary schools. During my time in the classroom, I observed that art lessons were different to other lessons. Teachers would push tables together to encourage the creation of small artistic communities, chairs were removed to allow freedom of movement and music was played.

The creation of this environment generated a very different atmosphere, which the children appreciated and responded well to. They were able to talk and support each other in creating artwork and it was clear they took great pride in sharing their skills and supporting their peers. Individual children had a sense of achievement in their artwork and during the course of an art project, their confidence in their ability grew.

It was also clear that art enabled traditional barriers in the classroom to be removed. Children were able to talk to each other about personal issues that were important to them and also engage with their teacher on a different level. This enabled relationships to be strengthened and developed.

The challenges teachers face

However, I also observed the challenges that teachers faced when delivering art lessons. Many spoke about how art was being squeezed from the curriculum and that they were facing pressure to focus more and more on academic topics rather than the arts. Teachers also spoke about the limited training they received and their lack of confidence in teaching a topic they felt was specialist.

These challenges could in part help to explain developmental trends, which suggest that expression in children’s artwork declines during the primary school years and that many children give up on art at around the age of 11. At a time when mental health issues are on the rise in children and happiness and wellbeing are declining, this disconnect with art could be significant. Given the reported benefits of creativity, meaningful engagement with the arts is more important than ever.

What can I do as a parent?

One of the most important things you can do to support artistic development is to demonstrate that it is a skill which is valued. When talking about art, many children report that it is something for ‘babies’.

There are a number of things you can do to show your child that you value art

1. Make sure there are always drawing materials for your child to access and use when they want to

If you have time, sit down and draw with your child. It doesn’t matter if you cannot draw yourself – drawing together allows time to bond and develop skills. As a non-artist myself, I find YouTube ‘how to draw’ videos useful as they give my sons insight into the demonstration of skills I cannot model myself. We learn together and understand that it is okay for our drawings to look different.

2. Talk to your child about their drawing

Children often love talking about their drawings but it is important that they are able to discuss them in a non-judgmental way. “This drawing is amazing – can you tell me all about it?” can be a good opener. It allows your child to set the agenda and discuss what is important to them and why. It also avoids (i) misinterpreting their drawing and causing upset and (ii) questions such as “what is this?” which may indicate that the drawing is not clear and the child has not done a good job.

You may also like to ask questions that encourage your child to consider the characters they have drawn in more detail. Questions like “tell me a bit more about this person. What are they like? Where do they live?” enable your child to use their imagination and further develop the world they are creating through their art.

Also, take this opportunity to talk to your child more generally. When drawing, children often enjoy talking about other things that are important in their lives. Drawing together can provide a valuable opportunity to connect with your child on a more personal level and strengthen your relationship.

3. Give children the chance to experiment

Sometimes children need the chance to explore and experiment. Often I will lay out a large sheet of paper and put out a lot of paints so my sons can just mix and enjoy, or put out a lot of cardboard boxes I have collected so they can make 3D art. This takes effort and a lot of cleaning up afterwards but it is important that children have the opportunity to develop skills and also have free expression.

4. Visit galleries

Often galleries are child-friendly spaces that have free arts-based events run by artists, or activities designed to encourage children to engage with the exhibitions and develop their understanding of aesthetics. Exploring different artistic traditions and developing an appreciation of art helps children to find their own artistic voice and style.

5. Find the value of art in everyday things

When reading stories to your child, draw their attention to the artwork and the skill that has gone into producing it. Consider the ways in which artists work in the films you watch and the comic books you read. Make it clear that art is a possible career and explore what artists add to the world.

6. Have fun!

Art is playful, messy and fun. Sharing enjoyment with your child will inspire them to engage meaningfully with the arts.

Find out more about Children’s Art Week.

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About the author

Dr Jenny Hallam
Senior Lecturer in Psychology

Jenny is a critical Developmental Psychologist who specialises in qualitative methods. Jenny has a long-standing research interest in the arts and exploring the ways in which the co-production of artwork in educational settings shapes children’s understanding and experiences of the visual arts.

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