Arts just as important as Science for kids

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AS a young student, I always enjoyed Language and Art better even though I was also interested in Science. Despite my natural affinity for the Arts, I ended up studying Pure Science in secondary school due to peer pressure, largely self-imposed. I suspect my experience is not an isolated one.

The large schism between the Arts and Sciences in Malaysian schools has sadly perpetuated the unfair stereotype that Science is for “smarter kids who can study”. This misconception has resulted in many kids choosing to study Science, even if they prefer and perform better in the Arts.

Although my parents did not impose pressure on me, I too succumbed to this way of thinking. I felt a strange, perhaps misguided, sense of duty to pursue Science and Maths subjects that I thought would lead to more stable sources of income.

Logical thinking and artistic creativity are often seen as polar opposites, when in fact neuroscience has shown that everyone uses both sides of the brain when performing any task.

As an adult and parent to three-year-old twins, I realise how important it is for parents to understand that the Arts and Sciences are two parts of a whole, both equally critical to a child’s development. Exposure to both is not only essential for children to discover their true calling, but will better prepare them for real life.

Albert Einstein noted, “The greatest scientists are artists as well”. Einstein himself was a keen musician who played the piano and violin. Few people are aware that he attributed many of his greatest scientific insights to “musical thinking”. Famous musicians like Brian May (of Queen), Brian Cox (of D:Ream) and Greg Graffin (of Bad Religion) have PhDs in Science.

Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman worked as an artist under the pseudonym “Ofey”. English author illustrator, Helen Beatrix Potter, best known for her imaginative children’s books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was also a natural scientist and conservationist.

Closer to home, there are examples like Dr Earl Lu, a renowned Singaporean general surgeon who was also a keen philanthropist, art patron and painter. He headed the Singapore Art Museum as chairman for eight years and was well known in the region for his Chinese ink paintings of roses.

A comprehensive review conducted by psychologists found that members of the Royal Society and National Academy of Sciences were almost twice as likely to report engaging in arts and crafts pursuits as the general public. Eminent Nobel laureate scientists were almost three times more likely to report such activities. These findings drive home the need to foster Arts education alongside Science; or even better, to find ways to fully integrate the two.

My friend Michelle and I first met as colleagues at a creative agency. As mothers raising Generation Z kids, we are always acutely aware of how fast content changes in the world today, and how important it is for children of this present age to learn resourcefulness, creativity and cultural adaptability.

Coming from creative backgrounds, we also wanted to expose our kids to art and culture from an early age. It was hard to find creative cultural experiences for our toddlers in Malaysia. So, we decided to design the very programmes we wanted so badly for our own kids. Many playdate-cum-work-meetings later, our Art Discovery Tours for Tots and Kids for Ilham Gallery Kuala Lumpur was born in November 2015. [Related article: Ilham Gallery organises art tours for kids]

Michelle and I learned many interesting things from the research we did while designing these Art Discovery Tours. You will see from the list below that the Arts not only fosters creativity, but has the power to teach many important skills that will last a lifetime:

Motor Skills: Many of the movements involved in creating art, such as holding a paintbrush or scribbling with a crayon, are essential to the growth of fine motor skills in young children. Developmental milestones like drawing a circle and using safety scissors help develop the dexterity children will eventually need for writing.

Cognitive Development: According to cognitive specialists, our brains can only continue to grow and form new synaptic connections when we are exposed to new and novel experiences. Thus, thoughtfully-planned visits to art museums and galleries that incorporate multisensory activities can be very valuable.

Language Development: Too often, art experiences for young children only focus on the making of art. We should encourage our children to talk about art, artists and how the artworks were made. Looking at art and encouraging conversations about it in ways that relate to children’s own experiences not only develops their visual literacy, descriptive language, but also their logical and creative thinking.

Decision-Making: According to research, art education strengthens problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. The experience of making decisions and choices in the course of creating art carries over into other parts of life.

Visual Learning: Activities like drawing, sculpting with clay and threading beads all develop visual-spatial skills. Toddlers today take in visual information even before they can read. Visual information consists of cues that we get through pictures from books and digital media. Graphic symbolism is also important in helping kids become smart consumers, as they navigate a world filled with marketing logos, where visual symbols can communicate ideas. Shapes are also symbols, so the ability to recognise and draw them is a pre-reading and writing skill, as letters of the alphabet are essentially complex shapes.

Innovation: Art experiences encourage children to experiment, make mistakes and look for ways to make things better. When kids are encouraged to express themselves and take risks in creating art, they develop a sense of innovation that will be important in their adult lives. This helps children grow into thinking, inventive people who seek new ways and improvements, rather than become people who just follow directions.

Pre-Skills for Maths and Science: Jean Van’t Hul of The Artful Parent points out that “open-ended, process-orientated art is nothing but an endless opportunity for making choices, coming to conclusions, second-guessing decisions, and evaluating results. Children become more comfortable with uncertainty and remain flexible thinkers”. Art encourages children to focus on small details and look beyond the obvious. This ability to accept uncertainty and keen observational skills are an important first step in Maths and Science education.

Self-Confidence: Involvement in the arts helps children develop their own voice and express their personal choices. Skills developed through theatre can train you to deliver a message convincingly, build your confidence to take command of a stage and speak to a large audience.

Perseverance: When children learn an instrument, for example, they will also learn the value of practice, and the rewards that come with perseverance.

Collaboration: When children have a part to play in a music ensemble or a theatre production, they learn how to work with others.

Cultural Awareness, Embracing Diversity: By looking at art, children learn that there can be more than one viewpoint, more than one interpretation of a topic, and more than one right answer. Teaching children to recognise the choices an artist or designer makes in portraying a subject or creating an object helps kids understand someone else’s interpretation of reality and the world.

Improved Academic Performance: Studies such as this one show that Arts make you smart. This article takes the findings further by saying that Arts can make your kids better thinkers and nicer people.

This piece gives some good tips on how you can teach your children to care about art.

As you can see, contrary to popular belief, Arts is not just fluff. It’s really full of the good stuff that helps us grow.

Li-Hsian Choo left a career in corporate communications to become a freelance writer and full-time mum to her twins. She also works on projects to curate creative experiences for children. She has co-written three children’s picture books and currently co-leads the Art Discovery Tours for Tots and Kids at the Ilham Art Gallery in KL. Her column, Mummy Moments, is about her journey as a mother.