Monday 23 October 2017

Want your children to do better academically? Expose them to the arts

A new Irish study shows that children who engage in the arts perform better across the board. Chrissie Russell speaks to the lead researchers

Performers: Geraldine Galligan, who is vice principal at Glenswilly National School in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, with her daughter Eve (11). Photo: North West Newspix
Performers: Geraldine Galligan, who is vice principal at Glenswilly National School in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, with her daughter Eve (11). Photo: North West Newspix

We know children should be getting outdoor play, we know that encouraging them in digital skills clubs like CoderDojo will greatly improve career prospects. We know they should be eating their five-a-day and doing 30 minutes of exercise five times a week. When it comes to our children's health and well-being, there's plenty that we already know. But what about the role the arts play in their lives - what do we know about that?

A landmark study exploring the impact of arts and culture on Irish children was published earlier this week. Commissioned by the Arts Council and conducted by the ESRI, it worked with Growing Up in Ireland data to follow children aged three, five, nine and 13 over a six-month period, and recorded the ways in which they engaged in cultural activity and what impact that engagement had.

It's the first time that activities like reading, drama, singing, dance and painting have been scientifically measured for how they affect cognitive development and the emotional well-being of children.

The fact that there hasn't been such an in-depth report carried out before now is perhaps an indication of how much importance has traditionally been ascribed to the arts. In a world so focused on tangible indicators of success - exams scores, IQ points and trophies - the more whimsical pleasures associated with acting and reading for pleasure have perhaps been overlooked.

But it turns out the arts have a very real and important bearing on our children's happiness and success. The study found that, among young children, being read to frequently and having more access to books contributed to improved vocabulary between three and five, all else being equal.

Among older children, self-directed reading and taking part in structural cultural activities outside school time contributed to improved academic ability.

"The data very clearly shows that the arts play an important part in contributing to social and emotional well-being from a very young age," reveals Orlaith McBride, director of the Arts Council. "Beyond the child's enjoyment - which is really good in itself - we now know that engaging in the arts has a positive impact on cognitive development."

'Cognitive development' is one of those terms many parents will be familiar with, but exactly what does it mean? Well, it means that through engaging in activities like art, reading and acting, children improve their thinking skills and develop a greater aptitude for articulating themselves and reasoning. Interestingly, involvement in cultural activities was also revealed to have a positive impact on numerical ability.

"Engaging in drama helps their capacity to learn, to question and to wonder. It helps them to develop empathy," adds Orlaith. "From our perspective at the Arts Council, it confirms what we already knew, but for the first time we now have robust and rigorous data to back that up."

One of the reasons such data is important is because it draws attention not only to the benefits offered to children who engage regularly in the arts, but also because it reveals which children are not getting access.

"One of the most startling things for me was the scale of the gender differences," says Dr Emer Smyth, a researcher with the ESRI. "In some cases gender was an even bigger factor than social background."

Nine-year-old girls from working-class backgrounds were revealed to be spending more time reading than middle-class boys, while girls from advantaged backgrounds had the highest level of involvement in structured cultural classes like afterschool dance, music or drama groups.

Five-year-olds from more highly educated families are involved in many more cultural activities, including reading, painting/drawing, cultural outings (with the exception of visiting the cinema) and educational visits than their peers. They also have less screen time. Among even the youngest children, girls have a higher level of engagement in the arts.

Both Emer and Orlaith fear that persistent gender stereotypes - that arts activities like drawing, reading and creative play are seen as more 'girly' in nature while boys are expected to engage in more physical pursuits - play a part in this divide.

"I think a lot comes down to gender stereotypes and we have to challenge those from an early age," says Orlaith. "Boys need to participate more. When they get older, sport is a big rival - and of course that's hugely beneficial too - but we can't underestimate the benefits of creative play, painting and drawing."

"The free pre-school years offer huge potential in terms of including academic cultural participation and challenging gender stereotypes," adds Emer. As she points out, the incongruity in regarding the arts world as 'female' at a young age is that the adult public arenas of art and music are largely dominated by men.

Socio-economic backgrounds represented the second gulf in participation, with children from less well-off families not displaying the same levels of engagement in activities like dance troops, music lessons and outings to galleries, museums and theatres.

"More advantaged families are participating more in the arts," says Orlaith. "At the Arts Council we need to look at how we are enabling children to participate at no cost and what does the State need to do."

If you're a parent reading this, you're probably wondering if your own child is 'engaging in the arts' sufficiently. The good news is that, broadly speaking, the research revealed 'yes' many children are engaging in the arts on a frequent basis. Most parents are regularly reading with their children and many children are engaged in structured activities. Even watching TV was revealed to have a positive impact on verbal skills - although prolonged viewing was poor for social and emotional development.

"This is not about making poor parents feel guilty about children watching TV," says Orlaith. "It's as much about what policy-makers, services and State providers, as well as parents, can do to encourage and nurture creativity and ensure that every child - regardless of gender or social background - has the same access to participating in the arts."

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