Ode to Joy:
Benefits of the Creative Arts in Children’s Lives
By: Margaret MacMillan
Children are naturally attracted to music. Anyone who has witnessed an infant soothed by the soft murmurs of a parent’s singing or by a gentle melody knows this. Soft high notes calm them, helping them relax and sleep, or perhaps, just listen. As they get a little older, they’re attracted to music with simple repetitive lyrics. It makes them coo, smile, and laugh, and they remember it the next time it’s played for them. And what happens when that baby becomes a toddler? The spontaneous result is uninhibited joyful movement. Put on a lively piece of music for a child in their bouncer and just watch them go. And if you bounce your child on your knee while singing or reciting a nursery rhyme, they react to the rhythm you’re creating. It’s inherent in them and brings them joy. Have you ever watched a child playing by themselves? The next time you do, notice how often they start singing a song they’ve made up on the spur of the moment.
It’s not just music children have an innate appreciation for. Soon those wiggles and bounces to melodies will become joyful hops, skips, and spins. Their first attempts at dance. Putting a crayon in
a child’s hand and giving them some paper will encourage them to fill up page after page with colorful unabashed pictures representing the world they see around them. Their first attempts at visual art. And, when young children are brought together, they inevitably act out what they are feeling or what is important in that moment in simple play acting. All children share this capacity for interpreting their feelings and their world with music, song, dance, acting, and drawing.
There’s a reason it is said that music is good for the soul. Consider why certain songs resonate with you when you’re feeling blue, why people make a break-up playlist, or why you feel like singing when you receive good news. Your mind unconsciously recognizes the benefits of music. Scientific research shows that music can be extremely therapeutic when dealing with emotional strife or day-to-day stress. Music can lessen depressive symptoms and stress, help you feel happier and more optimistic, and allow you to process and move past trauma. And part of the reason this is all possible, is because our appreciation for music is born in us.
Children need nourishment to grow into healthy, happy, well-balanced adults. Of course, there are various forms of nourishment and none of them can be neglected. Their bodies need to be nourished with fresh food full of vitamins to grow healthy bones, muscles, and brains. Their souls need to be nourished with love and encouragement to grow their self-esteem and empathy for their fellow man. And their innate capacity for all the creative arts needs to be nourished with inspiration and guidance to facilitate and enhance their ability to make their way in this world.
SO HOW DO WE DO IT?
Long before Madonna encouraged me to “move to the music,” I leapt, twirled, twisted, and curtsied to it in front of the full-length mirror in my mother’s bedroom. I would have been about five years old in the memory I have of doing this, but I’m sure I was inspired to dance by the music I heard around me, and in my own head, long before that. My mother, a lover of the arts and of children, and a shrewd woman, took note of this. What, she wondered, would be the best thing to do for a little girl who loved, more than anything, to dance?
SHE KNEW WHAT TO DO.
Rather than let that love of movement peter out, my mother signed me up for ballet lessons. Not only did those lessons direct my movements into real steps that could be woven into beautiful dances, they began a life-long appreciation for the art form I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
When I became a mother and my son went around the house tapping out rhythms on any available surface, I also knew what to do. I understood that, just as Gloria Estefan “…had to have percussion,” so did my son. Rather than let the passion go to waste, I signed him up for drum lessons. It was one of the best things I could ever have done for him. Playing the drums became a driving force in his life and allowed him to become part of a world where many others shared the same passion—people he would learn from and who would become his life-long friends and mentors. It also gave him an outlet for releasing frustrations and working things out when elements in his life became hard to handle.
Studies have proven time and again that children introduced to all forms of the arts at an early age benefit from them in a myriad of ways. One important benefit of learning how to put steps together in a meaningful way, getting on stage and transforming one’s self into a completely different character, playing music in front of an audience, representing images on paper, or mastering an instrument is confidence. I can speak for myself when I say that as a shy child, I learned I could communicate with people through dance, which gave me the confidence I needed to communicate with them more readily in my daily life. The prospect of talking to people about my feelings no longer seemed so challenging. And, as my son’s expertise in drumming grew, my husband and I noticed he opened up to people in a way we hadn’t seen before. He also volunteered to perform at school talent shows and signed up for school band programs. His world was transformed.
Another benefit to children often cited from exposure to creative arts is a higher capacity to problem solve. When children are given tasks like creating art from simple objects, moving to music in a way that compliments or interprets it, or creating a poem from one simple idea, they are solving problems. Doing so enhances their reasoning and understanding skills, skills that will be invaluable when solving math problems and other academic tasks. The best thing about this is children aren’t even aware of it and problem solving becomes enjoyable. In my son’s case, his grades in school improved about six months into his drum lessons. I believe part of this was due to an enhancement in his problem-solving skills combined with a better ability to focus and his increased self-confidence. I also think he was happier.
Children involved in the creative arts learn to persevere and see a task through. They come to understand that mistakes are made for a reason and that they help teach us patience and the right way to do something. They also learn to collaborate. Through playing in bands or being part of a drama club, they discover their part is just as important as everyone else’s and that collaboration means working together to be successful. And, they learn that constructive criticism, though perhaps hard to swallow in the beginning, is necessary and helpful. Learning it now and accepting it allows children to see it in a positive light in all other aspects of their lives.
All the wonderful things children learn through the creative arts help them navigate the often choppy waters of their school and social lives. But the benefits don’t stop there. The skills developed in these early stages become skills for life that they’ll use as adults in their grown-up relationships and their work.
As well as awareness of the benefits of the arts on children’s development, it’s crucial that there are many and varied opportunities for children to reap them, not only in schools, and at home, but within our communities as well. This provides a change of scenery and encouragement to explore other creative avenues parents and educators may not have considered. It also creates strong ties to the community that will continue throughout their adult lives.
Fortunately, there are many community organizations and groups that understand the potential well-planned creative arts programs can cultivate in our children.
One such group providing inspired outreach to creative arts programs is the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) in Houston, Texas. Their unique initiative, HGOco, creates new works and programs in collaboration with numerous community partners and makes them available to the public and to schools. One trip to their Web site and anyone in Houston interested in expanding their children’s musical and theatrical horizons will discover they can do so here.
HGOco believes in making opera available to everyone and that it should celebrate the stories found everywhere, especially in its own community. It’s all about “telling stories through music” and encouraging the community to join them in doing so. In its own words, HGOco “… connect(s) the company to our neighbours by telling stories in words and music.” Not only does it provide a venue for traditional opera, but it also puts a fresh face on it with unique works based on stories exclusive to Houston itself. These exceptional performances can be experienced in parks and libraries and on tours to schools. First Songs, one of its innovative programs for the very young and their caregivers, teaches soothing songs through the joy of reading. And Opera Camps, another program available to children, provides a creative environment where children from grades four through nine can develop their own creative skills by creating and performing their own operas.
Along with its programs for children in the community, HGOco provides outreach to schools by introducing school-aged children to opera. One such program is Storybook Opera, which introduces the art form to pre-K through grade two with singing storytellers visiting schools. To enhance these experiences for students, teachers are invited to attend workshops prior to the performances that will help them integrate the programs into the curriculum.
Opera to Go is another brainchild of the organization. Its purpose is to present opera to schools, libraries, and community centers. These high energy performances last about forty-five minutes, the perfect amount of time to engage children, and are sung in English and English/Spanish. Designed for today’s audiences, recent offerings have included: The Velveteen Rabbit and The Puffed up Prima Donna. And for children in pre-K to grade one, Opera Blasts, a program which adapts operatic stories for younger children can be combined with an Opera to Go performance. The artists presenting this program “…make famous opera relevant to the next generation of operagoers through engaging storytelling.” Singers visit up to five classrooms providing a personal interactive way for young children to learn about opera.