The National Art Education Association (NAEA) states that art is one of the most revealing of human activities, as well as one of the richest sources for understanding cultures, because the earliest things we know of ourselves are recorded in visual forms and images. A comprehensive arts education promotes the attainment of knowledge, understandings, and skills that contribute to the student’s intellectual, social, emotional, and physical development.

A comprehensive arts education program also is the perfect place to begin increasing children’s awareness of a variety of cultures, and plays a key role in affecting children’s long-term beliefs (Boutte, 2000). Saul and Saul (2001) caution teachers to move away from the “tourist approach” (p. 38) to teaching multicultural education wherein we “visit” different cultures, never to discuss them again. Multicultural experiences for young children should become a part of the child’s artistic awareness throughout the whole year.

Ernest Boyer, of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a noted expert on the arts, emphasizes the importance of arts education and has identified three reasons we need arts education in our schools. It is difficult not to pay attention to his view of art as “one of mankind’s most visual and essential forms of language, and if we do not educate our children in the symbol system called the arts, we will lose not only our culture and civility, but our humanity as well” (Boyer, 1987, p. 16).  The figure below presents a summary of the reasons Boyer feels that the arts can make such a difference in a child’s school experiences.

Boyer's Vision for Creative Arts Education

  • Arts education helps children express feelings and ideas words cannot convey.
  • Through the language of the arts we can help integrate our splintered academic world.  Students are not gaining insight or perspective or a sense of wholeness.  They urgently need to see connections, and finding patterns in the disciplines can be accomplished through the arts.
  • Arts education is necessary because the arts provide the child with a language that is universal.

Boyer’s points go directly to the heart of what we, as educators, believe is important to a child’s artistic development. Art education for children is providing a variety of materials and opportunities for self-expression. The impulses to explore, to manipulate, or to change ways of expression or the way the body moves, all find outlets in the arts. Young children can organize materials—be it paint, a story line in a book, or props for improvisation—to express ideas, feelings, and concepts. These are not separate entities; they are interrelated, and the more knowledge a child has of the nature and structure of creative expression the more each of these entities enriches and nourishes the other. The creative arts process provides a pathway for children to reach into a new creative unfolding and understanding of themselves.

As children experience the arts, they discover new ways of representing their world in ways that can be seen, felt, and heard. We need only to sit back and watch children creating to see that they bring their own personal feelings, experiences, sensory impressions, and imaginations to the artistic experience. They also enter into the process in ways that are unique, different, and right for them. This process is a transformation of each child’s inherent artistic potential, and the result is a wonderful, exciting, and significant reflection of the child as artist.

As children manipulate and explore the properties of paint, music, clay, or movement, they begin to develop concepts about their experiences. Through the arts they discover the hardness and plasticity of clay, the smoothness and roughness of different textures, the soft and sustaining bell tone of a suspended triangle, and the floating weightlessness of a silk scarf. Touching, seeing, and hearing are all intricately intertwined in these experiences of the creating child. The very intimate involvement of children with sensory exploration heightens sensory awareness and provides a solid base for future artistic creation.