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Title: The Arts in Early Childhood: Social and Emotional Benefits of Participation

Author(s): Melissa Menzer

Publisher: National Endowment for the Arts

Year: 2015

URL: https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/arts-in-early-childhood-dec2015-rev.pdf

Topics: Arts participation, early childhood development, Social and emotional development

Methods: Literature Review

What it says: The report presents a review of studies examining the effects of arts participation on social and emotional skills in early childhood (defined as birth to eight years.) The review was limited to peer-reviewed studies published between January 2000 and June 2015 which included quantitative analysis.

Overall the review found that there is evidence that participation in arts in early childhood is associated with positive social-emotional development (e.g., showing empathy, cooperating with others), at least in the short term. The review summarizes the available evidence by arts discipline and two areas of social-emotional development (social skills and emotional regulation). At least five studies included in the review point to an association between music participation and development of social skills, and another three found a similar relationship between visual arts and theatre participation and social skills development. Three studies did not find a relationship between arts participation and social-emotional development, but the author argues that overall, a “general trend in the literature” points to positive benefits for young children’s social-emotional development. In addition, the author found strong evidence of an positive association between participation in music, visual, theatre, and integrated arts programs and emotional regulation amongst young children. Only one study found no association between arts participation and emotional regulation.

The study further examines potential differences around these effects in regards to age, gender, socioeconomic status, and developmental disability. There were no observable differences in effect in regards to gender, and the age groups in the studies were too homogenous to detect effects based on age. Studies that focused on children of low socioeconomic status found significant impacts related to social-emotional health as a result of arts participation when compared to control groups. Although there is limited available research, arts participation was observed to be associated with positive social-emotional development among children with developmental differences such as autism.

The review notes a few important characteristics of the available literature, notably that there are significantly more studies examining music participation than other disciplines, and that many of the studies use samples that are too small to detect differences in specific demographics. Menzer also notes that experimental research designs are particularly valuable and should be pursued in future research. Her proposed research agenda consists of 1) research on the long-term effects of arts participation in early childhood across the lifespan, 2) determining the effect of demographic characteristics, 3) outcomes of arts participation specifically for children with developmental disabilities, 4) a better understanding of variation in outcomes by discipline. The report also notes that future literature review projects from the NEA may explore arts participation’s effects on other aspects of early childhood development, such as cognitive and physiological development.

What I think about it: This review provides a detailed yet concise summary of the recent research literature on this topic. The details provided about the methodology of the review, as well as the specificity with which the research characteristics and findings were summarized, make this a valuable example of the type of synthesis that will help policy makers and artistic professionals understand how the arts can contribute in specific areas (such as early childhood development). Its exclusive focus on peer-reviewed studies, however, is a limitation.

What it all means: This first chapter of the report mentions its connection to the research agenda of the Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development, of which the NEA is a part. This report speaks to the value of this task force’s research agenda and the overarching work of the NEA towards understanding the mechanisms through with the arts improve the lives of citizens. This report is a step in better understanding how the arts contribute to positive outcomes along the lifespan, and the research agenda it advances is sound. A better understanding of these mechanisms will not only be helpful in advocating for public investment, but also in promoting the design of programs that are most effective in producing positive social and emotional outcomes for children.