Written by Pamela Rossi-Keen, PhD, Education Committee Member
Play is an act of problem-solving through creativity. When you think about it, what else can we rightly call art? Incorporating art into formal and informal learning contexts—that is, the act of arts integration—is a fantastic tool to have in our kits, whether we are professional educators, parents, or simply people trying to engage in a meaningful learning experience.
My family first encountered arts integration when our children attended a local arts-integrated charter school. There I learned how this concept plays out. Practically speaking, this looks like incorporating art in any form into learning the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. It also means integrating concepts from core subjects into the learning of art. What does this look like in practice?
Let’s say a child is learning fractions, but he just isn’t connecting with dividing dollars or pies. Sometimes, it helps to come at the issue sideways. Why not look at a color field painting by Mark Rothko? Many of Rothko’s paintings are divided into bands of colors, where each color covers one-third of the canvas. While examining this work, the child is engaged in something besides a subject that’s been giving him trouble; rather, he’s seeing art. He’s expanding his exposure to beauty and creation. His mind is free now for a parent or teacher to say, “It looks like he divided this canvas into three parts, doesn’t it?” What color is the top third? Middle? Bottom?” Now, a concept is sinking in. Your student has a visual stamp—the Rothko painting—that helps him to recall the act of dividing a whole into parts.
One of my favorite arts integrated experiences that my children had was when their teacher divided them into groups of American colonists, one group arguing for and one against fighting for independence from England. The students acted out a debate. Not only was this project getting the kids in touch with the possible lives, thinking, and fears of the colonists in a deeper way than simply reading about them would, but it was also sharpening their debate and public speaking skills, as well. They remember it years later, and the skills of thinking on their feet, solving problems creatively, and arguing a cause are transferrable to myriad contexts.
This approach to learning is good for everyone; diverse academic levels and diverse socioeconomic groups can all benefit from arts integration. I have witnessed first-hand the way learning through the arts builds the capacity for layering and synthesizing material. It makes students creative, interested, and interesting. This is born out in the children many people think won’t succeed academically and the kids who are skipping grade levels. It’s a beautiful testimony to all of our inherent creativity. These results are not just anecdotal, but they are also demonstrated in study after published study. The research shows that arts integration remediates restlessness and boredom, increases test scores, boosts confidence (and isn’t that most of the battle?), increases academic motivation, and enhances social competencies.
In conclusion, teachers, parents and community members, arts integration requires you. Approach this as play, because it is. Watch a musical. Read a book together. Look at art online or go to a gallery. Listen to a song. Paint poorly together. Ask questions and guide the young people in your care to discover new ways of seeing. It’s truly such a gift.
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