When you think about children making art, what comes to mind? Quite possibly you think of play time, of paint all over hands and tables, a small scribbled character on a vast expanse of paper, fun, enjoyment, and creativity. But engaging in art activities also has the possibility for growing and developing many of the skills important to school success!
When children make art, they are practicing important self-regulation skills, like fine motor control, focus, and concentration.
Being able to hold and manipulate a paintbrush, pencil, crayon, or marker is a crucial first step in learning to write. The more a child practices drawing lines of different sizes, working out how to make the shapes and curves of a house, or a stick person, they are learning how to recreate what they see on paper, and practicing the ability to control their hand muscles to make the parts of letters necessary for writing.
Children are usually able to sit for relatively long periods of time painting, sculpting with Playdoh, or coloring. This may be because art activities tend to be self-directed play times, or because art at a young age is often inherently enjoyable, but whatever the reason, children are practicing the important school readiness skill of focused attention and concentration. In school, kids need to be able to stay focused on projects and activities, often on topics that are not easy for them, for extended periods of time. This focus often stretches their brain’s developmental ability to concentrate for long periods, and getting better requires practice. Being able to build kids’ attention and focus muscles through art is a great way for them to practice concentration skills without even realizing it.
Creating also presents the opportunity for problem solving and experimentation, persistence, storytelling and early literacy skills.
Learning what happens when we mix yellow and red paint together, or what happens when we hold a bunch of markers in one hand, or comparing scribbling on the paper as fast as you can vs. going slow. These experiments might not seem all that groundbreaking to us, but this all supports children’s understanding of materials, of cause and effect, experimentation and curiosity, and even the first steps in scientific inquiry.
Because art is often low in task demand (meaning, how hard we have to work to complete something), it may be easier for children to get past “messing up” and learning the benefits of trying again than in other activities that are more difficult. Learning how to use scissors is a perfect example of learning to keep trying in the face of frustration. When parents recognize children’s efforts, provide help and support to learn a new skill, and focus on their ability to keep trying, or try again, they are helping children build their ability to problem solve and persist through challenges.
The first thing we often ask when a child proudly shows you her picture is often, “Oooh, I love it, what is it?” This prompts the child to engage in the early literacy skill of narrative. What does the picture represent in words? What is happening in the picture? Why? These sorts of questions and others help children develop their language and explanatory abilities, and the first steps in narrative understanding which is important to later reading comprehension. Or perhaps you might label what you see, “Oooh, what a cool blue doggie!” Labeling art materials, colors, shapes, textures, and using prepositions (e.g. behind, next to, under, in front of, etc.) develop children’s vocabulary and early literacy skills as well.
These are just some of the early school readiness skills you and your child are probably already practicing without even realizing it; just a few reasons to continue making time for art and creativity. And if you sometimes feel guilty for choosing playtime and art activities over more “academic” ones, feel guilty no more! Play and art are crucial building blocks to child development and school success.