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Art Improves Kids Critical Thinking, But Not Necessarily Academic Performance

Pablo Picasso once said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” If you place any authority in a man who never knew where to put the nose, you might take this to mean that art is completely unnecessary for children. After all, their souls are way too new to require any dusting. Much less daily.

But there is a case for kids engaging in art. Even at school. You just need to put away some of the old ideas about what art can do for academics and understand the real benefits of art education, which are many (regardless of where you put the nose).

child painting

Old Arguments

Artists are notoriously needy. They require enormous levels of validation. So it’s no wonder they want to link arts education with the educational tools kids actually need to survive, like math, and reading, and making fun of the kids who are into art.

For a very long time, as money for arts education shrank, studies tried to tackle just how art might help kids academically. That lead to studies like one suggesting listening to Mozart could improve students test taking abilities. But while the idea of the “Mozart Effect” went crazy in parenting circles, critics quickly pointed out that the study showed the cognitive boost only lasted 15 minutes after listening to the music. Which is about how long the stupidness lasts after listening to anything by the Insane Clown Posse.

More studies trying to connect arts to academics followed, but most only showed a correlation between arts education and academic achievement. The problem is that correlation does not equal causation. And that made the research links between arts and academic achievement highly suspect. In response, researchers over the last decade have a new focus. It’s less on what the arts can do for academics and more on the intrinsic benefits of the arts on students themselves — like an appreciation for berets

child in art class

New Benefits

With researchers focusing more on what the arts can promote, evidence surfaced about the actual benefits to studying arts education. In a 2007 study, researchers discovered what they called “studio thinking.” That term refers to a set of cognitive tools that artists develop while creating. And while these tools don’t necessarily connect directly to boosts in math scores and reading levels, they do connect to helping make your kid a successful thinker and problem solver.


Creating art requires a deep level of persistence. Students can’t create a painting, or sculpture, or play, or piece of music on a whim. It requires days, months, and even weeks of perseverance. It also requires the ability to keep going even when problems arise. This perseverance and patience can be transferred to other areas of work and learning.


When your kid is in a band or acting ensemble (or mime troupe), it’s incredibly important to be able to work with others and accept their ideas. It’s the only way for the final work to be successful. And if it’s not successful, it’s necessary to be accountable for their role in it. There are a lot of instances where people prize this skill — like the boardroom. That walking against the wind schtick is not only appreciated but a welcomed metaphor for the corporate process.

Motor Skills

This one’s for the toddlers. Turns out creating with clay or paint brushes helps to develop hand-eye coordination and pincer grasp. Dance and movement classes help develop a better sense of body awareness. And spoken word helps them to develop the ability to run off at the mouth. Okay, maybe skip that last one.

Creative Thinking

This one should be a given, because … art. And it’s true — art does help kids tap into new and interesting ways to solve problems, take on different perspectives, and be fluid enough to overcome barriers. Like being told, “you’ll never be a great artist.”


Brain Changes

There is even deeper research occurring connected to how arts education may affect the brain physically. In Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts and the Brain, John Hopkins University researchers found that the arts can make physical changes to a kid’s brain.

One portion of the study found that giving kids training in attention-related tasks, like those required by the arts, increased the abilities of the “executive attention neural network” and improved other learning areas. They reported further,  “When children were given training specifically designed to improve attention, not only did attention improve, but the generalized parts of intelligence related to fluid intelligence increased as well.” Which means that with enough art training they’d probably be able to fully understand that study.

In the end, research continues to look for undeniable benefits in arts education. And they’re finding them. It’s just a matter of doing so before funding is completely gone. Because then, sadly, all the noses will be in the right place. That is, right smack dab on top of a dirty, dirty soul.