Research shows that students who engage in the arts at school perform better in math, reading, and writing, and have an enhanced social and emotional experience. Waldorf education integrates an array of arts into the curriculum to support academic growth, develop communication and collaboration skills, and give children a well-rounded, joyful educational journey!
This article was originally written by Brian Kisida and Daniel H. Bowen and published by the Brookings Institution
A critical challenge for arts education has been a lack of empirical evidence that demonstrates its educational value. Though few would deny that the arts confer intrinsic benefits, advocating “art for art’s sake” has been insufficient for preserving the arts in schools—despite national surveys showing an overwhelming majority of the public agrees that the arts are a necessary part of a well-rounded education.
Over the last few decades, the proportion of students receiving arts education has shrunk drastically. This trend is primarily attributable to the expansion of standardized-test-based accountability, which has pressured schools to focus resources on tested subjects. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets done. These pressures have disproportionately affected access to the arts in a negative way for students from historically underserved communities. For example, a federal government report found that schools designated under No Child Left Behind as needing improvement and schools with higher percentages of minority students were more likely to experience decreases in time spent on arts education.
We recently conducted the first ever large-scale, randomized controlled trial study of a city’s collective efforts to restore arts education through community partnerships and investments. Building on our previous investigations of the impacts of enriching arts field trip experiences, this study examines the effects of a sustained reinvigoration of schoolwide arts education. Specifically, our study focuses on the initial two years of Houston’s Arts Access Initiative and includes 42 elementary and middle schools with over 10,000 third- through eighth-grade students. Our study was made possible by generous support of the Houston Endowment, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Spencer Foundation.
Due to the program’s gradual rollout and oversubscription, we implemented a lottery to randomly assign which schools initially participated. Half of these schools received substantial influxes of funding earmarked to provide students with a vast array of arts educational experiences throughout the school year. Participating schools were required to commit a monetary match to provide arts experiences. Including matched funds from the Houston Endowment, schools in the treatment group had an average of $14.67 annually per student to facilitate and enhance partnerships with arts organizations and institutions. In addition to arts education professional development for school leaders and teachers, students at the 21 treatment schools received, on average, 10 enriching arts educational experiences across dance, music, theater, and visual arts disciplines. Schools partnered with cultural organizations and institutions that provided these arts learning opportunities through before- and after-school programs, field trips, in-school performances from professional artists, and teaching-artist residencies. Principals worked with the Arts Access Initiative director and staff to help guide arts program selections that aligned with their schools’ goals.
Our research efforts were part of a multisector collaboration that united district administrators, cultural organizations and institutions, philanthropists, government officials, and researchers. Collective efforts similar to Houston’s Arts Access Initiative have become increasingly common means for supplementing arts education opportunities through school-community partnerships. Other examples include Boston’s Arts Expansion Initiative, Chicago’s Creative Schools Initiative, and Seattle’s Creative Advantage.
Through our partnership with the Houston Education Research Consortium, we obtained access to student-level demographics, attendance and disciplinary records, and test score achievement, as well as the ability to collect original survey data from all 42 schools on students’ school engagement and social and emotional-related outcomes.
We find that a substantial increase in arts educational experiences has remarkable impacts on students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes. Relative to students assigned to the control group, treatment school students experienced a 3.6 percentage point reduction in disciplinary infractions, an improvement of 13 percent of a standard deviation in standardized writing scores, and an increase of 8 percent of a standard deviation in their compassion for others. In terms of our measure of compassion for others, students who received more arts education experiences are more interested in how other people feel and more likely to want to help people who are treated badly.
When we restrict our analysis to elementary schools, which comprised 86 percent of the sample and were the primary target of the program, we also find that increases in arts learning positively and significantly affect students’ school engagement, college aspirations, and their inclinations to draw upon works of art as a means for empathizing with others. In terms of school engagement, students in the treatment group were more likely to agree that school work is enjoyable, makes them think about things in new ways, and that their school offers programs, classes, and activities that keep them interested in school. We generally did not find evidence to suggest significant impacts on students’ math, reading, or science achievement, attendance, or our other survey outcomes, which we discuss in our full report.
As education policymakers increasingly rely on empirical evidence to guide and justify decisions, advocates struggle to make the case for the preservation and restoration of K-12 arts education. To date, there is a remarkable lack of large-scale experimental studies that investigate the educational impacts of the arts. One problem is that U.S. school systems rarely collect and report basic data that researchers could use to assess students’ access and participation in arts educational programs. Moreover, the most promising outcomes associated with arts education learning objectives extend beyond commonly reported outcomes such as math and reading test scores. There are strong reasons to suspect that engagement in arts education can improve school climate, empower students with a sense of purpose and ownership, and enhance mutual respect for their teachers and peers. Yet, as educators and policymakers have come to recognize the importance of expanding the measures we use to assess educational effectiveness, data measuring social and emotional benefits are not widely collected. Future efforts should continue to expand on the types of measures used to assess educational program and policy effectiveness.
These findings provide strong evidence that arts educational experiences can produce significant positive impacts on academic and social development. Because schools play a pivotal role in cultivating the next generation of citizens and leaders, it is imperative that we reflect on the fundamental purpose of a well-rounded education. This mission is critical in a time of heightened intolerance and pressing threats to our core democratic values. As policymakers begin to collect and value outcome measures beyond test scores, we are likely to further recognize the value of the arts in the fundamental mission of education.
Being outdoors helps children develop the curiosity that is the essence of science later in life. Time in nature helps students cultivate their independence, imagination and sense of wonder, while helping them feel less stressed and more confident in themselves. That’s one reason why outdoor education and play are core components of Waldorf education.
Before she became a famous scientist and inventor, Temple Grandin was a kid who liked to play outside.
“I absolutely loved flying kites,” she said. “We would just make up our own games — go sit in the field and make daisy chains.” All that undirected, childhood play, Grandin believes, amounted to more than goofing off. It was a foundation for her life in the sciences.
Now an animal behavior expert and professor at Colorado State University, Grandin has published more than 60 scientific papers. She is an advocate for people with autism, and in 2010 landed on Time magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
In her new children’s book “The Outdoor Scientist: The Wonder of Observing the Natural World,” released April 6, she encourages kids to follow her lead into the great outdoors. Time outside, she thinks, helps kindle curiosity that is the essence of science.
“If you are fascinated by clouds or the spots on a ladybug’s back; if you like to split open rocks and see what’s inside, then you’re already an outdoor scientist,” Grandin wrote.
Not enough kids have the opportunities she enjoyed to get dirty, make things and discover their own sense of wonder, she said. “Kids just aren’t outside enough doing it on their own — we need to teach it.”
That’s why she’s asking adults to throw open the doors and send kids outside. Her book, which includes ideas for hands-on projects children can do in nature, joins a chorus of advice from researchers and psychologists who insist kids need outdoor time to thrive.
Here’s why it’s important and how to get started, even if your kid would rather stay on the couch.
How getting outside helps children learn
Until recently, the connection between learning and exposure to nature was poorly understood, wrote Ming Kuo, associate professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in a recent review paper. Everyone thought nature was good for kids, she wrote, but they didn’t have robust research to support the thesis.
Now, that’s changing. Analyzing dozens of studies, Kuo found strong evidence that exposure to nature promotes attention and relieves stress. It boosts self-discipline and motivation. It’s tied to physical fitness, and also increases kids’ autonomy. The positive effect doesn’t require trips to faraway places, the research found. Just adding green spaces and trees to urban schools makes a real difference. Exploring natural areas outside of school can really help, though, whether it’s a trip to a city park or time in the closest patch of woods.
“Children are able to be more imaginative and engage in more pretend play when they’re in unstructured nature play areas,” said Kylie Dankiw, a researcher at the University of South Australia and author of a 2020 review paper on the benefits of playing outside.
Kids playing in natural areas engaged in more of what Dankiw called “cognitive play,” where they use their imaginations to create their own games. “Imaginative play is really important for developing social skills, interacting with other people and problem solving,” she said.
Playing in the dirt could lead to making scientific breakthroughs
What should kids do with all that outside time? It can be as simple as laying around in the grass, finding the beauty in insects, plants and clouds. “Just playing freely in and with nature,” Dankiw said, “where the child chooses what they want to do and how they want to play.” Outdoor time, in other words, doesn’t need to be structured.
If you want to offer your kid some inspiration, however, Grandin’s book includes 40 child-friendly projects, some that engage young readers with scientific principles. Kids
can make a model rocket powered by baking soda, for example, or craft a pine cone bird feeder to hang from nearby trees or an apartment window.
You never know where the project might lead. Many scientists, Grandin wrote, have followed their childhood interests to a life of discovery, and she shares some of their stories in the book.
As a child in 19th-century England, Mary Anning joined her siblings to collect seashells near the cliffs of Lyme Regis. That’s where, at 12 years old, she helped uncover the first complete Ichthyosaurus skeleton. The momentous find led to a life in paleontology.
In the United States, a young B.F. Skinner spent his childhood in the woods around his Pennsylvania home, fascinated by the antics of birds, butterflies and chipmunks. After years of study, Skinner’s childhood interests would transform the field of animal behavior.
It’s not that they knew, as children, that their interests would endure a lifetime. Grandin didn’t, either. “I also had no idea that all the stuff I loved doing as a kid would come to inform my life’s work,” Grandin wrote. “I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.” For Grandin and other scientists, though, playing outdoors turned out to be a life-changing opportunity.
Getting your child out the door
Of course, not all kids actually want to go outside. With the right approach, though, psychologist Mary Alvord of Rockville, Maryland, said parents can do a lot to encourage positive experiences in the natural world.
It helps to make it part of your family’s routine. “When my kids were young, they would come home from school, have a snack, then it was like: ‘All right, you have to go outside and play before you start anything else,’” she said. “From the start, it’s about setting the expectation that there is outdoors time.”
If that isn’t already on the family schedule, Alvord suggested parents be open and honest about wanting to make a change. Call a family meeting and make it a conversation, she said.
“Say, ‘We want to start putting in outdoor time — what would you like to do outside? What are some things we could do either as a family, or you could do by yourself, or with a sibling or with friends?’”
When introducing more time outdoors, Alvord said parents may have to do some reframing to get kids on board.
“The frame is: How can you make it appealing and fun?” she said. If it’s cold and rainy outside, that might mean presenting the day as a chance to jump in puddles or look for frogs. Every season, Alvord said, brings changes that can engage children’s curiosity.
If your child says she doesn’t want to go out because she’s doing something else, Alvord suggested giving her a chance to wind down. “Say, ‘Our outdoors time starts in 15 minutes,’” she said, so they can finish a game or wrap up another activity.
Parents’ attitudes count for a lot, Alvord said, which may mean getting out of your own comfort zone even as you’re encouraging your child to head outdoors. Try rethinking your attitude toward “bad” weather or getting dirty, for example. And if you’re hoping to nurture your child’s sense of wonder at the natural world, it could help to reconnect with your own, whether you’re watching the stars, going for a hike or just feeding birds in a nearby park.
“It’s not ‘do as I say,’ it’s ‘do as I do,’” she said. “Kids learn from us by seeing what we do.”