Children increase their artistic knowledge, skills, and creativity while enhancing emotional, social, cognitive, and physical development as they participate in art. They also are more likely to develop a “love of the arts” when they are exposed to art at a young age.

Artistic Development

Although most children will not choose to be professional artists when they become adults, they will nevertheless be surrounded by images. To be literate in today’s world, one must be able to understand, analyze, and critique these images. Through early childhood art, children can increase observation skills, learn art techniques, begin to understand the relationship of art to culture and history, and learn to appreciate and enjoy images and art. They will also have the experience of joy that comes from creating unique products (West, 2006).

Although the arts are often the first subjects to be eliminated when there are school funding cuts, Hetland and Winner (2001) make the following important point, “Cultures are judged on the basis of their arts; and most cultures and most historical eras have not doubted the importance of studying the arts” (p. 5).

Creative Development

Art enhances creativity, which is crucial for innovation and adaptation. Creative people have the ability to see multiple solutions to a problem, employ original thoughts, and use their imagination. As a field, art promotes these skills, encouraging unique and divergent responses and diverse ways of looking at things.

Many early childhood teachers previously thought the best way to enhance creativity in the arts was to use the noninterventionist approach. However, we have now come to realize the power and possibilities in the art as inquiry approach. As stated by HMIE (2006), a group in Scotland who researched creativity,

As pupils acquire experience, develop skills, and broaden their knowledge and understanding, they are able to use their increased control of materials, movements, media, and ideas to demonstrate a more mature level of creativity. Ironically, in contrast with the view that a climate of ‘anything goes’ is conducive to creativity, the opposite is the case. Higher levels of creativity usually result from an interaction of considerable knowledge and skill with a willingness to innovate and experiment. (p. 3)

Land and Jarmin tested people’s ability to think in divergent ways (creatively generate multiple solutions or ideas). Using the same instrument, they tested 1,600 children—first in preschool, then in elementary school, and finally in high school. When the group of children were tested as preschoolers, 98% were considered to be geniuses in divergent thinking. The test was repeated when the children were 8 to 10 years old and only 32% of the children still reached the genius stage. When the children were tested as 14- and 15-year-olds, only 10% still tested in the genius range for divergent thinking. Preschoolers who once had the ability to think in divergent ways had lost this ability through their school years (Robinson, 2005). While thinking divergently is only one characteristic needed for creativity, it is critical, since the other characteristics of creative thinking are built upon this skill. It is crucial that we encourage divergent thinking in the arts, as well as in all curricular areas in the classroom.

According to Robinson and the National Advisory Committee on Cultural and Creative Education (1999), four characteristics are necessary for an activity to be defined as a creative process: thinking imaginatively; being purposeful; generating an original thought, idea, or product; and having this thought, idea, or product valuable in relationship to the task or objective. As we plan our art environments, we need to think about these characteristics. Children who have learned the artistic techniques needed to represent their ideas and have the opportunity to explore topics and media in-depth, to revisit and add to their work, and to examine the same idea in different media are more likely to embody these four characteristics.

Emotional Development

Art experiences can also assist children’s emotional development. As children participate in art activities they gain self-confidence, feel pride in their work, and experience success (Koster, 2005). Art allows children to express strong emotions that they may have difficulty verbalizing. It may provide the child and others with insights into the child’s thoughts and feelings, thus allowing for conversation and further discussion. For example, Gross and Clemens (2002) discuss how preschoolers in their class used drawings, paintings, and clay models to re-enact the destruction of the twin towers in New York. Re-enacting the scene was therapeutic for many children, allowing them to feel a sense of control, and opening up dialogue with the other children and adults in their lives.

Social Development

As children examine art from various artists, in different time periods and diverse cultures, they have the opportunity to learn about and to appreciate differences. They come to understand that people have unique values and see things in different ways.

In many classrooms, children also have the opportunity to collaborate with others on murals and other large art projects. Again, children learn about diverse views, practice negotiation, and have tangible proof of how their work, when combined with others, can create something beautiful.

Cognitive Development

Through art, children learn about the world, record thoughts and ideas, and enhance academic learning. “Artmaking is a form of inquiry and way of learning about oneself and the world” (Tarr, 1997, p. 2). For example, as a child observes a flower and then draws a sketch, he notices details he may not have considered before. Slight imperfections in the petals raise questions. What caused the holes in the petals? Why are some petals turning brown while others are not? He notes that the petal is a graduated color and must determine how he will portray this. When the child is done, he shares his work with others. “Through sharing and gaining others’ perspectives, and then revisiting and revising their work, children move to new levels of awareness” (Edwards & Springate, 1995).

As with written language, the visual arts involve recording a thought or idea that then can be conveyed to someone else. For this reason, art is often considered the child’s first written language (Koster, 2005). This window into the child’s thinking makes her ideas visible to others. This allows others to engage in dialogue and ask questions that will assist the child to reflect even more deeply.

As children carefully study and discuss their art and the art of others, they are developing “visual perception or ‘visual thinking’ a cognitive process that takes images and gives them meaning” (Koster, 2005, p. 5). They are also seeing items from different vantage points and exploring spatial concepts (critical skills in geometry). In addition, while participating in art, children pose and solve problems, organize thoughts, and reflect on their learning. They learn about properties of materials and experiment with cause and effect. All of these skills are critical in other disciplines as well.

Physical Development

Art develops large and small muscles and eye-hand coordination. Unlike prescribed writing or art exercises, creative art provides a motivating climate for children to practice and perfect motor control. Some teachers use production-oriented art as a way of promoting fine motor control. However, children are typically more passionate about their own creative art. Therefore, they are often more committed to the repeated practice that is needed to master the skills.

As children participate in art they have opportunities to increase artistic skills, enhance creativity, and develop emotional, social, cognitive, and physical skills. However, for optimal development, the teacher must use the inquiry approach to art and must establish an environment that is conducive to learning.