As we all know, learning standards have become a central part of early childhood education. At their best, they provide teachers with a framework for identifying appropriate goals for their preschool and kindergarten students. Unfortunately, they can also cause some teachers to feel the pressure of promoting children’s academic achievement, even at these young ages. This can mean that the arts, including music, movement, art, and drama, often take a back seat to more didactic methods involving direct instruction and worksheets. But the arts are actually the perfect tool for teaching standards. Several studies have shown that children learn many essential skills through creative, problem-solving activities with concrete materials!

The fact is, young children do indeed learn science, math, and literacy standard skills through art, music, movement, and drama activities. The process of learning and exploring through the arts is the “glue” that holds all the learning standards together.  Young children use the creative process to make sense of what they are learning and to apply the concepts to both practical and creative experiences. One way to look at this is to see it as the difference between a multiple choice test and an essay exam. We can teach children skills and facts that they can represent on worksheets and/or we can invite them to take what they know about something and apply it through artistic expression. This application process is much like what we have to do when composing an essay. That is, we take what we know and communicate or represent it in a new way. This builds higher order problem-solving and critical-thinking skills that will be fundamental to later learning through the elementary grades and beyond. As the old adage goes, “It’s the process, not the product!”

You may be wondering exactly how you can meet standards in this creative way. There are many different standards being used in early childhood. Your school may have its own set of standards or use a state or program model. Let’s take a look at a few general examples of standards in each curriculum area to see how well the arts teach the standards:

SCIENCE

  • Use senses to explore and observe materials and natural phenomena. Hands-on experiences with art and natural materials invite children to explore with their senses. Activities such as finger painting with a variety of textures and substances, printing and sculpting with natural materials, and creating dramatic play masks and costumes from nature all require children to notice the differences and similarities in the materials and to solve the problem of how to use them.
  • Describe the effects of forces in nature (e.g., wind, gravity, and magnetism). Creative movement activities require children to explore the use of their bodies in space and to deal with the forces of gravity and flow. Add a prop such as a scarf, a balloon, or a fan, and children can explore the effects of wind. Art activities with straws to blow paint, balls to make rolling paint trails, or magnets to drag metal objects through paint all build curiosity about and understanding of how these natural forces work with a familiar object — paint!
  • Show an awareness of changes that occur in themselves and their environment. Visual art is all about change. It is the process of taking a material such as paint, clay, or paper and changing it in some way. Art activities that focus on the effects of sun fading paper or melting colored ice on absorbent paper give children hands-on experience with these basic science forces in their environment and on themselves.

MATH

  • Show understanding of and use comparative words. Music and movement are wonderful learning tools for using comparative words. Many finger plays and songs invite children to explore “great big” and “eensy weensy” with movements and sounds. When children are asked to make big and little, long and short, or high and low movements, they incorporate an understanding of these terms into their muscle memory. Songs that ask children to make loud and soft sounds and use long and short words build comparative vocabulary.
  • Recognize, duplicate, and extend simple patterns, such as sequences of sounds, shapes, and colors. The arts are filled with patterns. There are repeating patterns in stories, songs, and dances. Children learn these patterns quickly and use them to build memory and develop the basic math skills that are needed to count, add, and subtract. Visual art invites children to observe the differences in shapes and colors to create and replicate patterns.
  • Sort and classify objects by a variety of properties. The key math skills of sorting and classifying are an important part of visual art. Activities such as sculpting, painting, and assembling collages, invite children to explore a variety of materials and build a concrete understanding of their properties through problem-solving.  

LANGUAGE/LITERACY

  • Retell information from a story. Creative movement, drama, and puppet activities are wonderful ways to inspire children to retell a story. The process of taking the story “off the page” and into free expression helps children to not only learn the basics of story sequence and vocabulary, but also to build their self-esteem. These are all precursors to writing!
  • Understand that pictures and symbols have meaning and that print carries a message. In the early years, children use everything they can to make meaning of what they are reading. They read the shape and color of signs and use illustrations to read a story. Activities with visual art materials encourage children to use drawing, scribbling, and writing to convey meaning and information. Encouraging children to dictate stories and titles for the art demonstrates to them how their spoken words are represented in text.
  • Begin to develop phonological awareness by participating in rhyming activities. Music and movement are indispensable for teaching rhythm and rhyme. Children love to participate in repetitive and predictable rhyming songs such as “This Old Man” and in the process build an experiential understanding of rhyming words. Song “inventions,” which ask children to create new lyrics and add new rhyming words, help them use phonics in a purposeful and fun activity.

Your Role

Ultimately, it is the teacher who weaves the magic of the arts throughout the curriculum and standards. While free exploration with materials is essential, the teacher’s intentional interactions and questions move the experiences from pure play to playful learning. Ask questions such as, What do you notice? How many ways can you _____? How are these the same and different? Can you do it another way? What would happen if ______?

It is your ability to see the teaching and learning in each arts-based activity that makes the difference between a fun, engaging art project and a learning-based one. The arts are not an extra or frill activity, to be enjoyed after all the "academic activities" are complete — but rather a fundamental learning tool that can be integrated into the curriculum. You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other . . . the goal is to have both!

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