Developing children's full potential: Why the arts are important

Dr Neryl Jeanneret, Faculty of Education, Univeristy of Newcastle

There are many reasons why the arts are an important factor in the development of children’s full potential. This article presents just a few of these reasons, drawing information from the literature that abounds on this subject.

The arts are a central force in human existence and everyone should have sufficient and equal opportunities to experience and continue to participate in the arts throughout their lives. Education is about creating equity of opportunity to enable children to realise their potential, and equity of opportunity is about access. To deny access to the arts is to deny access, as Reimer (1989) states, to "a basic way that humans know themselves and their world; they (the arts) are a basic mode of cognition" (p 11). Fowler* (1994) takes this idea a little further by stating,

The arts are one of the main ways that humans define who they are. They often express a sense of community and ethnicity. Because the arts convey the spirit of the people who created them, they can help young people to acquire inter- and intra- cultural understanding. The arts are not just multi-cultural, they are transcultural; they invite cross-cultural communication. They teach openness towards those who are different from us. By putting us in touch with our own and other people's feelings, the arts teach one of the great civilizing capacities – how to be empathetic. To the extent that the arts teach empathy, they develop our capacity for compassion and humaneness.

*Many of the quotes that appear in this paper were taken from articles downloaded from the internet and the original page numbers could not be cited. The original publication details appear in the references.

Fowler also says that it is feeling rather than intellect that connects us to other people, but this is not to deny the power of the arts in developing children’s cognitive capacities. Gardner (1985) believes that "a human intellectual competence must entail a set of skills of problem solving…enabling the individual to resolve genuine problems or difficulties that he or she encounters and, when appropriate, to create an effective product… and must also entail the potential for the finding or creating problems… thereby laying the groundwork for the acquisition of new knowledge" (pp60-61). Given that problem-solving, as Gardner suggests, is fundamental to intellectual competence, Eisner (1982) notes that, "the problems that most people have in their lives, the dilemmas that plague them the most, are quite unlike the clear and unambiguous solutions found in school textbooks and workbooks" yet much of the present school curriculum tends to emphasise "forms of representation having a syntactical structure in which black-and-white, true-false, and correct and incorrect answers are dominant". He asks, "How do we prepare children for life by posing problems to them in which ambiguity is absent and the need for judgement rare?" (p. 52) While I acknowledge that all areas of the curriculum have the potential to develop an imaginative and creative intellect in children, the part that can be played by the arts in this development has often been neglected. Many people do not associate the arts with "thinking", unaware that.

The arts are not so much a result of inspiration and innate talent as they are a person's capacity for creative thinking and imagining, problem solving, creative judgement and a host of other mental processes. The arts represent forms of cognition every bit as potent as the verbal and logical/mathematical forms of cognition that have been the traditional focus of public education (Cooper-Solomon, 1995).

We should also note that the arts complement the sciences because they nurture different modes of reasoning. The British aesthetician and critic, Herbert Read, went so far as to say, "Art is the representation, science is the explanation… of the same reality" (Fowler, 1994). The arts are able to teach divergent rather than convergent thinking and encourage children to come up with different, rather than similar, solutions because the solutions to artistic problems are multiple. The arts break through the black-and-white, true-false, memorise-that, name-this that cause Eisner concern. This kind of reasoning is far more the case in the real world, where there are often many ways to address a problem and, "An effective work force needs both kinds of reasoning, not just the standardized answer" (Fowler, 1994). In his music advocacy speech at the 1996 Grammy Awards, Richard Dreyfuss announced, "It is from that creativity and imagination that:

the solutions to our political and social problems will come. We need that Well Rounded Mind, now. Without it, we will simply make more difficult the problems we face" (Dreyfuss, 1996). Fowler (1994) sees the arts as a powerful path towards Dreyfuss' "well-rounded mind" stating that When we involve students in creative problem solving, we invite their participation as partners in the learning process. Instead of telling them what to think, the arts engage the minds of students to sort out their own reactions and articulate them through the medium at hand. Their beings become embedded in the task so that they learn from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Such figuring-out requires critical thinking, analysis, and judgement; students tend to stay on task because they are creating their own world, not replicating someone else's. Being able to think independently is the basis of creativity. It is also an engaging way to learn. The arts invite students to be active participants in their world rather than mere observers of it.

The results of balancing the arts with other learning areas in the curriculum have shown that where 25% or more of the curriculum is devoted to arts courses, students acquire academically superior abilities (Perrin, 1994), demonstrating an apparent relationship between learning in the arts and other areas. Perrin also refers to long-term educational aims, saying that workers at all levels in our post-industrial society need to be creative thinkers and problem solvers and able to work collaboratively, they must be judicious risk-takers, they must be able to push themselves towards high levels of achievement, and they must have the courage of their convictions, and that arts education develop such skills. Perrin suggests that these attributes are nurtured in the arts because "the student artist (musician, dancer, visual artist, writer, or actor) learns by doing" (Perrin, 1994).

One of the aspects that makes the arts unique is their capacity to communicate information and/or meaning through means other that verbal/language. A number of researchers now suggest that cognition, perception and feeling are all closely linked. Louis Arnaud Reid states that "I conceive of feeling as cognitive as well as affective, as always having content or an object. Even when we cannot possibly say what we feel, we are feeling a quality of something, though unnameable" (Reid, 1986, pp 5-6). In reinforcing this point, Swanwick states:

We may agree with Einstein and Iris Murdoch and also with Polanyi, that "we can know more than we can tell" (Polanyi, 1967). There are, though, other ways of "telling" besides verbal language. The arts as ways of knowing are as potentially powerful as any other form of human discourse and they are just as capable of contributing to the development of the mind on a conceptual level (p.48).

Teachers have known for many years that young children often understand more than they are able to verbalise and their understanding can be observed in behaviour other than verbal. The arts use their own unique symbol system of visual, aural, verbal and non-verbal forms of communication. When children participate in activities in the arts, they are involved in using both non-verbal and verbal forms of communication. They are using sound, movement, gesture, marks, form and image to express their ideas and feelings. Leaning how to represent in many ways what we have experienced is a primary means for contributing to the expanded consciousness of others. The particular form of representation one selects places restraints upon what one is able to communicate, regardless of the level of skill one possesses or the variety of techniques one know how to use, and some aspects of human experience are simply better expressed through some forms than through others. If it were possible to convey everything that humans wanted to convey with one or two forms of representation, the others would be redundant (Eisner, 1982). In other words, "Humans invented each of the arts as a fundamental way to represent aspects of reality; to try to make sense out of the world, manage life better, and share these perceptions with others" (Fowler, 1994) because a single form of representation is simply not enough.

The key learning area of the arts is able to provide children with unique and multiple ways of exploring, forming, expressing, communicating and understanding their own and others’ ideas and feelings. It provides students with the skills and knowledge necessary to understand how the arts reflect and depict the diversity of our world, its cultures, traditions and belief systems. The procedures within the arts can contribute to the development of the potential of the whole child by proving children with the opportunity to:

  • Develop the full variety of human intelligence
    Develop aesthetic awareness and perception
  • Develop the ability for creative thought and action
  • Develop an understanding of cultural change and differences
  • Develop feeling and sensibility
  • Develop physical and perceptual skills
  • Explore values, and
  • Achieve positive self-esteem (Commonwealth of Australia, 1995)

While the arts have been grouped together in a single key learning area, it must be remembered that each art form is unique and what is experiences and learned in one art form cannot be duplicated by another. Children should have access to all the arts and experience dance, drama, music, visual arts and literary arts programs that present a developmental sequence in line with the particular discipline’s knowledge base. To merely "dabble" in one or two of the arts is akin to "dabbling" in language or numeracy.

On another level, what about the intrinsic value of the arts? Young children appear to enjoy creating in the arts and will spontaneously invent, for example, rhymes, chants, songs, dances and stories. Many teachers are aware of this enjoyment of the arts for their own sake but they are aware of the powerful influence of these childhood experiences on the development of future adult attitudes about the arts (Jeanneret, 1995)? Early childhood and primary teachers are an important source for early arts experiences and have the potential to affect children’s opinions about the arts and their future adult involvement in the arts. It must also be noted that teachers' own artistic experiences frequently shape their attitude toward and confidence in teaching of the arts and that teachers are influential, not only as educators, but also as parents and members of the community. Teachers have an important role in the advocacy for the arts in education noted in the recent report from a Commonwealth enquiry into arts education:

A society that regards paid work as the "real thing" and creative life as a frill, something rather special that is carried out on behalf of the community by a special priestly class ("the arts community"), is an unhealthy society. Arts education must be a strong force which fosters a widespread and general creative life as a counterbalance to the forces of mass production and mass consumption in a specialist materialistic society. The voracious demands of the latter will progressively displace the former unless the importance of the arts in education is strongly and widely asserted (Commonwealth of Australia, 1995, p.7).

The future of this world rests upon the shoulders of its youth. It is our responsibility as adults and educators to ensure we do all in our power to aid the development of children’s potential. Equity in educational opportunity is essential if society is to tap all the possible resources in the shaping of its future, and the arts are an integral and undeniable part of this development of potential.


  • Commonwealth of Australia, (1995). Arts Education. Report by the Senate Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts References Committee.
  • Cooper-Solomon, D. (1995). The arts are essential. School Arts, 94, (6), p. 29.
  • Dreyfuss, R. (1996) Speech at the 38th Annual Grammy Awards February 29, 1996.
  • Eisner, E. (1982). Cognition and Curriculum: a basis for deciding what to teach. Now York: Longman.
  • Fowler, C. (1994). Strong Arts , Strong Schools. Educational Leadership, 52, (3), p.4.
  • Gardner, H. (1985). Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences, New York: Basic Books.
  • Jeanneret, N. (1995). Developing preservice primary (elementary) teachers' confidence to teach music through a music fundamentals course. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sydney.
  • Perrin, S. (1994). Education in the arts is an education for life. Phi Delta Kappan, 75 (6), p. 452
  • Reid, L.A. (1986). "Art and the arts", Assessment in the arts, Ross, M. (Ed.), Oxford: Permagon Press.
  • Reimer, B. (1989). A Philosophy of Music Education, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. (second edition.)