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Lessons in Art

What dance, music, theater and more can do for your child's development

Russell McKinley, who is now on staff in the theater department at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, discovered the stage as a creative outlet as a kid and credits it with helping him in so many facets of his education. “In theater, I have to be equal parts artist, architect, engineer, philosopher and historian,” he explains.

That’s really the case in all artistic disciplines. Beyond furthering a creative talent, kids build relationships, think critically, problem solve and develop better communication when they participate in the arts. Plus, numerous studies show that kids involved in the arts do better in academic subjects and exhibit more confidence. So whether it’s painting, sculpting, acting, dancing or designing, exposure to the arts (both participating in and enjoying the work of others) absolutely benefits a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and motor skills. “[Theater’s] made me a much more well-rounded person,” McKinley says.

What, specifically, can the arts do for your kiddo?

Promote Creativity

This one might seem like a no-brainer, but kids who engage in any type of arts education are better outside-the-box thinkers because they’ve learned to look at tasks from different perspectives and to think on their feet. In art, kids may paint a picture that represents a memory. In theater, they may recite the same monologue two ways, and in music, singers may be asked to make up a song. Practicing creative thinking often means it will eventually come naturally. There’s also the ongoing trend with employers valuing creativity and leadership over test scores and grade point averages (though both are still very important). “[Employers want] people who approach things from a different direction and don’t just go with the crowd,” says Correy Sharkey, an art teacher in Fort Worth. “The arts help engrain these qualities into kids’ brains.”

Hone Focus

Painting, learning the lyrics to a song and memorizing lines for a play all take extreme focus. Not only do the arts require intense concentration on your children’s part, but they help kids see the bigger picture too. Kids begin to understand how their contributions are necessary for the success of a group.

Stephanie Diaz-Peters is a dance instructor in Hurst. She says learning a routine, for instance, helps to broaden a child’s attention span (and listening skills) and helps with self-awareness. “They have [to remember] the steps, engage their core, [and practice] spatial awareness; it requires intense focus,” she explains. “Physically it makes kids stronger, but mentally it really teaches them self-control and multitasking at a young age,” she explains.

Understand Nonverbal Communication

The arts require all kids to express themselves in ways they can’t in math and science classes. Amanda Allison, Ph.D., the coordinator of art education at Texas Christian University, runs a Basics in Arts program at Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center in Fort Worth, where her college students interact with fourth-graders, communicating with them through art. “If you look at the history of the arts, its original use was solely for expression and documentation,” Allison points out. “Art making today serves the same human purpose.” Physical forms of art such as drawing, painting or sculpting may help children get out emotions they aren’t capable of understanding yet, she explains.

The same is true with other art forms: Experiences in theater and dance, for instance, give kids a stage for releasing emotions they aren’t comfortable talking about or simply don’t have the words to express. Through their craft, kids understand that different movements and facial expressions communicate different emotions. And it works the other way too. Kids involved in arts education discover the mechanics of body language and how to read people’s unspoken cues.

Develop Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

Without kids even realizing it, the arts beckon children to solve problems. From the very basic: How do I turn this clay into a sculpture? To the more complex: How would my character react to this situation? Artistic creations force kids to think critically to solve problems.

It’s important to note, however, that not every creation—be it a drawing, dance sequence or piano solo—is going to be a home run every time. In fact, children may struggle to perfect their art and still end up disappointed with the results. Andrea Davis, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and board-certified art therapist in Dallas, encourages parents to sit back and let kids make mistakes while creating. She then suggests getting constructive feedback from a professional in the craft, which allow children to improve and grow within the art form.

Get You Involved Too, Parents

So what can you do? There are plenty of amazing music, art, dance and photography classes for kids in the Dallas- Fort Worth area, but there are also things you can do outside formal teachings to expose kids to the arts.

“We think in pictures even before we are aware of spoken language,” says Annie Wallace, an art therapist in Dallas. “A child who is exposed to different sensations—whether it’s sounds, colors or movements—is stimulated to grow in every way.”

Here are a few habits to incorporate the arts into your everyday routine to help your kiddos bloom and grow:

1. Read stories to your kids with a bit of dramatic flair. Change your voice, maybe get the kids to act out a favorite scene or encourage them to talk you through a different ending to the story.

2. Instead of giving old dresses, hats, scarves and jewelry away, give it to the kids to use for dress-up play. And this month, don’t get rid of those Halloween costumes. Add them to the collection, and consider buying more after the holiday at discounted prices in stores and in online yard sales.

3. Keep a limited supply of crayons, markers, paints and other art essentials easily accessible. “I give my children unlimited access to supplies they need and let it be their idea what to do with them,” says Carol Sustaire, an art teacher at Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts and mother of five. “There’s this technique to encourage readers, where you place interesting books randomly around your house so that your children will find them on their own and become interested without parents pushing it.” It’s a strategy parents can use with music, literature, photography, architecture, anything really.

4. Expand your musical repertoire at home and in the car. Venture into unknown musical territory outside nursery rhymes or top-40 hits. Try smooth jazz or classical tunes through Pandora or other free streaming services. Or check out CDs from the library for free.

5. And sing and dance together often.