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Arts activities help children’s social and emotional development, review of research shows

The majority of the studies were investigations into the effects of music and dance on children during early childhood because researchers have tended to focus on those activities.

Participation in arts activities can have a positive effect on the social and emotional development of young children, according to a major new review of the best scientific literature on the topic.

The review, released Wednesday by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), examined the findings of 18 peer-reviewed studies published between 2000 and 2015. The majority of the studies were investigations into the effects of music and dance on children during early childhood (from birth to 8 years) because researchers have tended to focus on those activities. But several studies also involved either theater activities or visual arts and crafts. A few included multiple art forms.

Here are two of the key findings:

  • Music-based activities strengthen “pro-social behaviors” in young children, such as helping, sharing, caring and empathizing with others. For example:

In a nationally representative study sample, parents who reported singing to their child at least three times per week had a higher likelihood of also reporting that their child had strong and sophisticated social skills, such as pro-social behaviors, compared with parents who reported singing to their child less than three times per week.

Toddlers participating in a four-to-eight-month, classroom-based music education program to promote school readiness were more likely to increase their level of teacher-reported social cooperation, interaction, and independence over the school year, compared with a control group who did not receive a music education program.

Children assigned to a dance group that met twice a week at school for eight weeks had stronger improvements from pre- to post-assessment in parent- and teacher-reported social skills, such as prosocial behaviors and cooperation. These children also showed strong reductions in internalizing (shy, anxious behavior) and externalizing (aggressive behavior) problems. Such effects were significantly stronger when compared with those for a control group.

  • Arts activities help children learn how to better regulate their emotions.  For example:

Compared with a matched-control group, toddlers in an arts integration program comprised of daily music, creative movement (dance), and visual arts displayed improvements in teacher rated positive and negative emotion regulation over the course of the school year.

When children aged six-to-eight and ten-to-12 who were … instructed to engage in drawing a house to distract them after being asked to think of a past event that made them feel upset or disappointed, they were better able to improve their mood — compared with other children who were instructed to draw the negative event, or children who were instructed to copy another drawing.

Other factors

The NEA researchers also analyzed the 18 studies to determine the role that gender and family income had on the results. They found that neither was a factor in the studies’ findings. Boys and girls and children from all socio-economic backgrounds appeared to benefit similarly from participation in arts activities.

Yet, as the NEA researchers point out, most of the studies were too small to have enough statistical power to detect differences between those characteristics — or between other important ones, such as age, ethnicity, race and culture.

The researchers also note that relatively little is known about the effects of the arts on the social and emotional development of children with physical or neurological disabilities, with one exception: autism. Several studies have found that arts participation benefits young children with this neurodevelopmental disorder.

One study, for example, reported that young children (ages 3 to 5) with autism had stronger “positive outcomes” (such as making and maintaining eye contact) when they participated in a 12-week music program than when they took part in a more generic “play” program of the same length.

Need for more research

Not all the studies reviewed found that arts activities benefited children. Several had null findings — results that suggested no positive effect. Furthermore, the studies that did find benefits come with caveats. Most notably, they tended to use the observations of parents and teachers to measure results — observations that may have been biased by knowledge of the programs their children were engaged in.  

Still, overall, “this new review adds to the growing evidence about how arts participation helps young children develop strong social and emotional skills,” says Libby Doggett, deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning for the U.S. Department of Education, in an introduction to the NEA report.  “Yet we need to delve deeper into how and why the various art forms impact children’s learning. And then most importantly we need to get this information into the hands of teachers who need more assurance that increasing the use of the arts can benefit children’s learning in language and literacy, math and science, and most importantly in social-emotional development.”

You can read the full report at the NEA website. This year, by the way, marks the agency’s 50th anniversary.

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