Connecting the Dots: The Role of Art in Supporting Child Development
By Brean Witmer (she/her), Senior Program Manager of Monitoring & Evaluation and Youth Risk Behavior Prevention
Domains of Child Development
As all caregivers, educators, health practitioners and most people that have spent significant time in their life caring for a young child knows, children develop along a spectrum. This spectrum reflects a variety of milestones, achievements, and targets intended to act as a roadmap from infancy through adolescence. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, child development occurs within four domains [i]:
- Language/Communication: how children express their wants and needs; how they represent their thoughts; how they understand what is being expressed or said to them
- Learning/Thinking/Problem-solving: how children learn new concepts and understand the world around them; how they explore their environment; how they process new skills, including academic skills such as the alphabet or long division
- Movement/Physical: how children use their bodies
- Social/Emotional: how children relate to and socialize with others; how they show and express their emotions
Although some very early skills may fit neatly into just one domain at times, such as a baby babbling or purposefully dropping food from a highchair, many skills combine multiple domains, especially as children age. As with many developmental processes, skills are scaffolded and built upon one another as children master higher and higher levels of each new ability.
Whether you are a caregiver, an educator, a health practitioner, or someone else caring for a child, you likely are interested in supporting their optimal development. In these helping roles within the child and adolescent space, the ultimate goal is often to foster a supportive environment that provides the safety, nurturing, and guidance needed for growth and greater mastery of skills – regardless of whether that skill is learning to play an instrument, making a new friend at school, or confidently giving a class presentation.
The Arts and the Role They Play
As shown in previous posts of our Connecting the Dots: Health as Art series, the arts can take many forms. Within the domains of child development, it’s clear how the arts may be integrated into each of the four areas, and how supporting a child’s interest in activities like dance, music, poetry, and photography, among countless others, can further support skill development.
The learning, application, and practice of skills within five core competencies has been identified by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as being integral to preparing children for healthy relationships, personal health and wellness, and school and civic engagement [iii]. These core competencies are self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. When art is leveraged as a medium for fostering and further developing these skills, multiple positive outcomes can be seen.
Connecting the Dots
Using art as a vehicle to support child development is something that may be done purposefully or not, yet the outcome and the growth in skills may result regardless. Research has shown that one area of the arts in particular has significant benefits on numerous child development outcomes – that area of the arts, is music.
Music, including singing, music classes, listening to background music, theater, and more, have been shown to positively impact many skills and developmental milestones, from infancy through the teen years, such as:
- Mother-infant bonding, including reducing stress-hormones and improving nurturing behaviors [iv]
- Language development [iii] and verbal communication [v]
- Social development [vi]
- Reading skills [vii]
- Increased attention in the classroom [viii]
- Improved self-confidence [ix]
Furthermore, research has also shown the impact on development that the arts, and music specifically, can have on children and adolescents of vulnerable and at-risk populations, including children growing up in lower income homes [x], and children with developmental, physical, or learning disabilities [xi, xii, xiii].
These skills are instrumental in fostering a child’s social-emotional learning and in developing CASEL’s five core competencies. By greater integration of the arts in a child’s life along the course of early childhood, adolescence, and the teenage years, children will receive improved opportunities for applying and mastering skills in a creative and supportive way.
Discover new activities that connect the dots between social-emotional health, physical activity, and nutrition through art at school and at home with the Connecting the Dots: Health as Art Toolkit!
[iii] Fancourt D, Perkins R. The effects of mother–infant singing on emotional closeness, affect, anxiety, and stress hormones Music & Science. 201812059204317745746 doi: 10.1177/2059204317745746
[iv] White EJ, Hutka SA, Williams LJ, Moreno S. Learning, neural plasticity and sensitive periods: implications for language acquisition, music training and transfer across the lifespan Front Syst Neurosci. 2013790 doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2013.00090
[v] Treshina E. Development of the speech of the younger preschooler by means of theatrical activities. Annual International Scientific and Practical Conference, Kiev. 8 April 2016.
[vi] Schellenberg E, Corrigall KA, Dys SP, Malti T. Group music training and children’s prosocial skills PLOS One. 20151010e0141449 doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0141449
[vii] Chobert J, François C, Velay JL, Besson M. Twelve months of active musical training in 8-to 10-year-old children enhances the preattentive processing of syllabic duration and voice onset time Cereb Cortex. 201224495667 doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhs377
[viii] Kulinna PH, Stylianou M, Dyson B, Banville D, Dryden C, Colby R. The effect of an authentic acute physical education session of dance on elementary students’ selective attention Biomed Res Int. 201820188790283 doi: 10.1155/2018/8790283
[ix] Gold C, Voracek M, Wigram T. Effects of music therapy for children and adolescents with psychopathology: a meta-analysis J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2004456105463 doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.t01-1-00298.x
[x] Pasiali V, Clark C. Evaluation of a music therapy social skills development program for youth with limited resources J Music Ther. 2018553280308 doi: 10.1093/jmt/thy007
[xi] Cofini V, Cianfarani A, Cicilia MR, Carbonelli A, Di Giacomo D. Impact of dance therapy on children with specific learning disability: a two arm cluster randomized control study on italian sample Minerva Pediatr. 2018 (Epub ahead of print). doi: 10.23736/S0026-4946.18.05249-0
[xii] Zyga O, Russ SW, Meeker H, Kirk J. A preliminary investigation of a school-based musical theater intervention program for children with intellectual disabilities J Intellect Disabil. 201722326278 doi: 10.1177/1744629517699334
[xiii] Edwards BM, Smart E, King G, Curran CJ, Kingsnorth S. Performance and visual arts-based programs for children with disabilities: a scoping review focusing on psychosocial outcomes Disabil Rehabil. 2018112 (Epub ahead of print). doi: 10.1080/09638288.2018.1503734