The other day I heard a segment on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show about arts funding to New York City public schools, which is much lower than I, and the guests (which included president of Columbia University’s Teacher College), think it should be. With such an intense focus being placed on test prep, support for the arts seems extraneous, like fun icing on the math, reading, and science cake. It’s difficult to quantify the benefits of arts education, though one of the guests said that studies are being done, and have been done, that show such benefits are substantial.
I’m such a staunch fan of the arts that the idea of a doing a study to quantify their educational importance gives me the heebie-jeebies. Aren’t the benefits obvious? Creating a picture, a book, a song, or a drama performance requires active, critical thinking, and confident yet careful decision making, and, in some cases, working collaboratively with your peers. It’s a purely pleasurable activity that gets your whole brain fired up!
That’s assuming you’re doing art right, though, and not just handing out pages for kids to color within the lines. When I was in grade school, arts education meant making cards for our parents around holidays. So really, aside from writing a message on the inside of the card, very little instruction occurred. My teachers did not take the opportunity to teach us about perspective, color theory, and scale, which touch on science and logical reasoning skills. Art just wasn’t highly valued at the grade school I attended.
At home was a different matter. On the weekend, my mom helped me make books, my dad worked with me to build models and construct cars for the Cub Scout’s Pinewood Derby, and a few times a year the family visited Art Museums with my painter uncle, who talked with us about the things that we saw. Also, I can’t underestimate the impact Bob Ross’s painting show on PBS made on me. Seriously! He seemed like such a calm, relaxed dude, planting “happy little trees” with a few deft scrapes of his palette knife. Ross made painting seem both a painstaking craft and a deepening spiritual pursuit, just as my parents used our craft projects as opportunities to hone my intellect as well as provide opportunities for self-expression.
My son Felix is four years old, and he’s always been very focused on the concrete world. Gardening and cooking, also creative pursuits, have long held appeal, but he’s only recently shown an interest in drawing, building, and other artistic activities. People have asked if I spend any time during the day teaching him letters or math. I haven’t, not expressly. But these skills come up often when we create art together.
Here are four projects we’ve done that are fun and also, I think, build important pre-school skills.