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Arts for Learning

Can the arts help teach any subject? Why are arts activities in early life beneficial to future learning? What makes a good art teacher? This program explores a variety of aspects relating to the arts-learning connection. Louisville 3rd graders learn about recycling and pollution through “Eco-Drama”; neuroscientist Lise Eliot explains how music, movement, and visual stimulation help prime the brain for language development and future learning; Dr. George Szekely of the University of Kentucky talks about teaching art; and Slavko Milekic discusses his interactive museum software for children.

In the Program

  • Cross-curricular learning
    3rd graders in Louisville learn about pollution, resource use, and recycling through the “Eco-Drama” activity developed by Stage One children’s theater.
  • Key points
    Educators discuss the connection between arts and learning.
  • The arts and brain development
    Neuroscientist Lise Eliot explains how music, movement, and visual stimulation help prime the brain for language development and future learning.
  • Teaching the arts
    George Szekely, professor of art education at the University of Kentucky, encourages teachers to be open to the creativity in young children.
  • The arts and technology
    Software developer Slavko Milekic discusses using computers to help youngsters explore museum artworks.
  • Art for Art’s Sake
  • Resources on the arts-learning connection

Arts for Learning (Video)

Louisville 3rd graders learn about recycling and pollution through Stage One’s Eco-Drama program. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot explains how music, movement, and visual stimulation help prime the brain for language development and future learning. A university professor demonstrates best practices for teaching art, and Slavko Milekic discusses his interactive museum software for children.

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Cross-Curricular Learning



The “Eco-Drama” classroom program featured in Program 7 of Art to Heart came about when Louisville’s professional theater company for young people, Stage One, partnered with a city environmental effort called Brightside. Offered free of charge to all Louisville 3rd-grade classrooms, the program uses drama-based instructional strategies as a way for students and teachers to actively explore issues such as pollution, recycling, litter, and energy awareness.

Eco-Drama is an excellent example of how drama—and the arts in general—can be used across the curriculum. “Drama is a way of learning through role playing and problem solving,” explains Stage One Artistic Director J. Daniel Herring. “The process of learning calls for self-awareness skills, concentration, and group cooperation. Its power lies in its potential to place learners in a variety of contexts—in situations that generate forms of thoughts, feelings, and language beyond those usually generated in the traditional classroom setting.”

Teacher Debby Horn at Louisville’s St. Agnes Elementary agrees. “I think the kids use drama naturally,” she says. “It’s a part of play that they’ve been doing since they were young.”

Education has long been a strong facet of Stage One. This nationally acclaimed children’s theater company gears its productions and education resources to development ages and stages, viewing drama as a way to enhance children’s intellectual, physical, and emotional well-being, Herring explains. In Kentucky, the arts and humanities are assessed in the public schools, and Stage One has done in-depth research into ways to connect its programs to the state academic content. The company offers numerous workshops, including several specifically focused on incorporating drama across the curriculum.

Check into young people’s theater opportunities in your community. In addition to performances, many organizations offer school workshops, individual workshops with hands-on activities, and online curriculum guides and resources.

Introducing Children to Live Theater

  • Make sure the performance is appropriate for your child’s age and developmental stage. Most young people’s theater companies offer age guidelines for productions. Many offer participatory or shorter performances as a way to introduce preschoolers to live theater.
  • Look for storytelling performances at your local library and festivals.
  • Prepare your child for attending the performance. Discuss audience etiquette. Preview the story together.
  • After the performance, talk with your child about what he or she noticed and liked about the performance.

Visit the Stage One web site for more information about the theater company and examples of resource guides.

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Key Points

Arts and Learning


“The arts are the one arena where there are no right and wrong answers and where kids can really express themselves. The arts are where you put your own heart and soul into it.”

Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College and senior research associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education

“I do think that kids use drama naturally. I think it’s a part of play that they’ve been doing since they were young.”

Debby Horn, 3rd grade teacher, St. Agnes Elementary, Louisville

“The teacher’s role is to promote the modes of thought that make artistic activity possible. That’s what painters do and that’s what writers do. That’s what poets do. They think about their work. They make modifications to their work, they enhance it, they edit it. They make it stronger. That’s what we need teachers to be able to do. It’s not an easy job. It’s far easier teaching arithmetic. But how do you know when a painting is done or a poem is finished? You have to exercise that most exquisite of human capacities, the capacity to exercise judgment in the absence of rule. That’s the kind of attitude we want to promote, not just in the arts but in general in school. That’s the kind of attitude that brings about great science as well as great art.”

Elliot Eisner, professor of education, Stanford University

“I think what we often do is we talk about the arts as about kids. ‘We really need to do music with young kids. We really have to do creative dramatics.’ That is absolutely true, but I believe we really have to do all those things with teachers.”

Louise Pascale, professor of creative arts and learning, Lesley University

“Children are not just small adults. They have a fundamentally different brain. They process things differently because of the fact that this complicated organ inside our heads does not develop uniformly. The sensory and motor skills kick in first, and so very young children live in a very immediate world where they perceive things, they move, and they get feedback from those movements. Young children really live in the moment, and I think we accept that with babies. But it’s surprising how even with preschool-aged children sometimes people have unreal expectations about what their memory capacity is going to be or their ability to plan for not even just tomorrow, but to plan a project that has several parts to it. They really do need the guidance to look ahead because they don’t have that frontal lobe skill we call planning.”

Lise Eliot, associate professor of neuroscience, Rosalind Franklin University

“Art is a time to ask children. It’s a time to play with children. It’s really probably the only time in school when you ask the kids, you know, ‘Let’s sit down and make something without having a list of instructions, having to fill in sheets and sheets invented by someone else.’ Walk into any classroom in an elementary school and ask, ‘How many of you want to be artists?’ and 90% or more of the children will raise their hands. Kids love art; many of them come to school to have that one joyous period of the day. Do we care if kids are happy in school? Do we care if they’re in an environment doing things that they enjoy? Art brings joy, not only to a particular child, but to the classroom and the entire school.”

George Szekely, professor of art education, University of Kentucky

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The Arts and Brain Development

The Brain on Art


“There’s just this narrow period of life when visual experience is critical for wiring up our ability to see. The brain depends on—it craves—visual stimulation in order to just put its basic circuit together,” says Lise Eliot, associate professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University.

As Eliot explains in Program 7 of Art to Heart, visual stimulation in early life is essential. It’s one reason babies love to look at bold patterns and bright colors. Looking at faces is a way they learn bonding and communication.

The musicality of the human voice aids in learning language. And movement stimulation actually helps calm infants.

Fortunately, there are many easy ways to give infants and toddlers what their developing brains need. Talk and read to your baby, Eliot recommends. Sing and play music. Bounce to a beat and dance with your baby. These activities are enjoyable for everyone involved, she notes. “The fun thing about having children is that you can be a kid again yourself.”

Find Out More

Lise Eliot’s book What’s Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life is an in-depth explanation of how the brain “wires up” during the early years and what parents can do to foster development.

More advice from Eliot can be found on page 40 of the Art to Heart downloadable viewing guide.

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Teaching the Arts


You don’t have to be a great painter or dancer or an accomplished singer or actor to teach young children art. But according to two teachers of teachers interviewed for Art to Heart, you do have to be open to the creativity in children—and in yourself.

Program 7 of Art to Heart follows along as Dr. George Szekely, professor of art education at the University of Kentucky, takes a group of education majors into a Lexington elementary school. They work with the students to create “The Best Circus Ever,” the kind of hands-on, fun, and imagination-oriented activity that Szekely believes should be happening more often in schools. Szekely says he would recommend that teacher education include classes in storytelling, clowning, juggling, and other areas that would inspire teachers to embrace learning as a joyous and enjoyable process.

Louise Pascale, a professor at Lesley University, where the Creative Arts and Learning Program focuses on integrating the arts into education, agrees that teachers must first recognize their own creativity before they can teach it. “If teachers aren’t doing art, music, and creative dramatics, the kids aren’t going to do them.” And art shouldn’t just be found in the art or music classroom, she says. “It’s my belief that throughout school, starting in preschool, if teachers believe and see their own creativity, then they share that with the kids, then they have that every day. So it reaches every learner.”

Find Out More

  • George Szekely is the author of numerous books and articles on teaching art. His books include Encouraging Creativity in Art Lessons, From Play to Art, The Art of Teaching Art, and How Children Make Art. Visit to learn more about his works and his philosophy of teaching teachers.
  • More information about the Creative Arts in Learning Program, including a 10-minute online video, is available at the Lesley University web site.

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The Arts and Technology

Interacting with Art


A typical museum exhibit, says Slavko Milekic, “does everything to prevent children from exploring the works of art in the way that’s appropriate for their age.”

Children explore the world in a very different way from adults, “and the younger they are, the more true this is,” says this associate professor of cognitive science and visual design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. “They need to create an experience. They need to interact physically with the environment and try to modify it, to explore it, to see what happens if I do this and do that. And none of this is possible in a traditional museum.”

A focus of Milekic’s work as a researcher and designer is to create applications that transfer knowledge and ideas in a child-friendly way. One example is Kiddy Face, a touch-screen computer application that enables children to manipulate works of art. It’s installed in the ArtSparks children’s space at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum. (You can see it in use in both Program 1 and Program 7 of Art to Heart.)

Milekic has also investigated gesture-based applications, which allow the viewer to change what he or she is looking at by simply moving a hand. He installed such a “gesture gallery,” as he calls it, at the Phoenix Art Museum. “It consists of a small platform where a child can just stand and, with simple gestures, browse the whole collection in an open space—which is also important because this becomes social interaction,” he explains. “Anything that one person does is available to anyone else—if you walk into the room and you see that this person is browsing the gallery content magically, just by waving their hand, then you want to do it, too.”

Find Out More

Milekic’s web site at the University of the Arts includes extensive information about his research, including online demonstrations of the activities included in KiddyFace.

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Art for Art's Sake


While some studies tout the benefits of arts activities on non-arts areas of learning, that shouldn’t be the only reason to include arts in young children’s lives, says Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College and senior research associate at Harvard University’s Project Zero.

The arts are worthy of inclusion in schools in their own right, she contends, because they teach certain skills—such as how to observe and the ability to envision—that no other subjects teach. She calls these skills “studio habits of mind.”

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Resources on the Arts-Learning Connection

Arts for Learning


Many studies have explored the connections between arts and learning across the curriculum. Here are some links to research and information.

  • The Americans for the Arts web site includes a section of links to research on early childhood education.
  • National Art Education Association
  • Arts Education Partnership
  • Information about music and learning can be found at the Suzuki Music Academy’s Parenting Central web site.
  • focuses on brain development and includes an Ask an Expert feature.
  • The site, available in both Spanish and English, offers information on stages of development, learning on the go, and how parents can promote early learning.
  • In recent years, scientific and medical advances have given researchers new windows into the brain through MRI technology and other scanning tools. By allowing scientists to see exactly how brain activity relates to actions, reactions, and other stimuli, these tools can help confirm or dispute practices and theories, guide the fields of child development and education, and affect policy. Sites with links to brain research include the National Child Care Information Center and the Educational Cyberplayground.

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Other Programs in this Series

Why are arts experiences important in the early years of life? How do music, dance, drama, and visual art contribute to growth and learning? How can parents and educators foster young children’s creativity?

Art to Heart is an eight-part KET production that explores the importance of visual arts, music, dance, drama, and literature in the lives of infants, toddlers, and young children, providing useful ideas and information for parents, caregivers, and early childhood teachers.

Visit the Art to Heart Collection

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