The Relationship Between Art and Critical Thinking Skills in Preschoolers

“The arts enrich us all.” The hotly contested slogan has fueled many school board debates over arts education funding for the past 30 years. Do the arts truly enrich us? Well, it depends on what your definition of “enrich” is. Both my husband and I graduated with liberal arts degrees and spent our twenties joking that if the arts enriched us all, why were we so damned poor compared to the lawyers, doctors, and scientists of our generation. On the other hand, we have the miraculous ability to do something many of our more business-inclined peers do not: think spatially, reflect broadly, and communicate effectively across a variety of disciplines. These are three of many skills we cultivated through arts education. And it all began when we were preschoolers doodling with pencils.

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, parents and educators should think twice before dismissing the value of arts education or, worse, replacing paper and crayons with tablets and art apps. Art is a child’s gateway into writing. It is their first mode of personal expression. We understand how they think by looking at what they’re drawing. Often children can express what they are thinking and feeling through art before they are ever able to effectively put it into words.

While they’re drawing, they are also cultivating a series of essential life skills:

…drawing can be incorporated into learning in many ways, including visual mapping, reflective thinking, organizing and presenting information, and a way of communication that can transcend language barriers.

A simple collaging project requires children to develop problem-solving skills while experimenting with new mediums. They’re getting early geometry lessons in every time they cut a new shape, a simple action that develops fine motor skills later used for handwriting. What’s more, the process of creating art in a classroom environment teaches both respect for one’s work as well as the ability to appreciate the work of others.

While the article focuses a great deal on federal funding of arts programs in public education, it also touches on the fact that technology has replaced the good old pastime of doodling for many young students, often to their detriment. Children prefer playing with tablets and art-related software neatens their scribbles into prettier art. If that concept doesn’t sound creepy enough, read on:

But social shifts and technological advances are also a factor, according to Rafael van Crimpen, the head of the Breitner Academie in Amsterdam, who told that schools today are embracing digital technology at the expense of art and creativity. “Children draw better if they have more time for it,” van Crimpen said. “Education is changing with the times and that is reflected in their drawings. And of course, digitalization plays a part.” These tendencies are evident in the U.S., too, with many classrooms relying on technology to teach art.

In other words, students aren’t learning a valuable mode of self-expression. They’re learning how to use technology to make their personal expressions conform to accepted norms. It’s a good sell on the surface to tell parents their children are learning how to use the latest technology in the classroom. Forget the long-term psychological impact of having your personal work of art rendered more acceptable by technology. That’s apparently a bit too much for mom and dad to comprehend.