One of the main purposes of art is to impact the viewer and to share with them in some way. Even art for the sake of art can be meaningful to the right eye. This paper explores the hypothesis that performing art is not merely beneficial for its audience, but also for the performer. Involvement in theatre and music offers people a way to connect with the world and express themselves in a unique and meaningful way. Creating through performance can have a significant impact on human development socially, emotionally, and cognitively. By reviewing studies and articles from peer-reviewed journals, this paper explores the impact that participation in the arts, primarily theatre and music can have on child and adolescent development.
Keywords: theatre, music, child, adolescent, development, education
Arts such as Theatre and Music are often treated as frivolous extracurricular activities, with little more than entertainment value. Performing arts programs are often costly and take place after school hours, making them unattainable for many working-class families. As such, many individuals do not have access to arts programs. I hypothesize that participation in performing arts can have a significant impact on the development of a human being from early childhood through adolescence and into adulthood, and as such, artistic instruction and opportunities should be available for every child. Through the review of several studies and peer-reviewed journals, this paper will explore the effects that participation in performing arts, primarily theatre and music, can have on a person, socially, emotionally, and cognitively as they progress and develop through childhood and adolescence.
The most comprehensive article I found in my research on the topic of arts participation and human development was Does Participation in Music and Performing Arts Influence Child Development? from American Educational Research Journal, June 2017, Volume 54, No. 3 by E. Michael Foster and Jade V. Marcus Jenkins. In the article, Foster and Jenkins (2017) begin by stating that “the literature on arts learning and children’s intellectual development in both childhood and adolescence shows consistent positive associations (Hallam, 2010)” (p.399) and that “an association between music and other arts education and cognitive development, therefore, is plausible” (p.400). However, plausibility does not always equal causation.
Foster and Jenkins (2017) then chronicle over 30 articles, ranging from 1975 to 2016, examining the effects of arts participation and cognitive and intellectual growth in children and adolescence, showing positive, mixed, and null outcomes (p. 401-407). Through examining the data from these studies Foster and Jenkins (2017) conclude that “the causal effects of arts education (through the reviewed studies look primarily at music education) on outcomes such as language, reading and math are ambiguous” (p.410) as “approximately one-third of the studies find positive effects, another third find no effects, and the remaining third produce mixed results” (p.410). Foster and Jenkins (2017) continue, “even if arts education did not impact academic performance per se, a large body of evidence in developmental psychology highlights the importance of involvement in the arts, and in constructed leisure activities more generally in promoting positive youth development during adolescence and early adulthood (Eccles & Barber, 1999; Larson, 2000)” (p.411).
The link between participation in theatre and music on other aspects of development is far more plausible. Foster and Jenkins (2017) find that “activities like musical and performing arts help to structure a child’s peer group, facilitate social relatedness, for identity, express talents, and achieve positive recognition, and may help steer adolescents away from risky behaviors like skipping school and using drugs (Barber, Eccles, & Stone, 2001; Eccles, Barber, Stone, & Hunt, 2003; Fredericks et al., 2002; Fredericks & Eccles, 2006; Mahoney, Cairns, & Farmer, 2003) (p.411). Through their research Foster and Jenkins (2017) surmise that “it is likely in the interest of public schools to offer educational opportunities in the arts” (p.411). Additionally, Foster and Jenkins (2017) conduct their own examination of “three different types of arts education exposures on a board range of outcome in both adolescence and early adulthood, using a large, representative sample of children” (p.413).
The research conducted by Foster and Jenkins (2017) concludes that there are several correlations between music lesson participation and improved outcomes. Foster and Jenkins (2017) found that “for 5 out of the 10 outcomes, children in the music lessons scored better, for example, higher on the Letter-Word score and lower on the behavior problem index” (p.427). These findings illustrate a positive impact from participation in music lessons on cognitive and social development, as seen through behavior and literacy. However, as this trend is only seen in five out of the ten outcomes, they are not able to prove causation.
In the article The Arts as a Venue for Developmental Science: Realizing a Latent Opportunity from Child Development, September/October 2017, Volume 88, Number 5, Thalia R. Goldstein, Ellen Winner, and Matthew D. Lerner explore both theatre and music’s impact on cognitive and social development, particularly through “habits of the mind” (p.1507) like critical thinking and visual expression that are taught in addition to artistic skills. Goldstein et al., (2017) begin by stating that “involvement in the arts is universal in childhood” (p.1505). Goldstein et al., (2017) explains that children innately spend hours playing pretend, singing, acting, dancing, and creating. Goldstein et al., (2017) surmise that participation in theatre “may lead to higher levels of theory of mind, emotional empathy, emotional control, and emotional regulation skills” (p.1508).
Similarly, Goldstein et al., (2017) note that participation in music programs that require participant to create music together, like chorus or band, “call for shared intentionality and close attention to the mental, physical, and emotional states of the group, as well as synchronous movements” (p.1508) which “may lead to increased social affiliation with fellow music makers” (p.1508). Goldstein et al., (2017) goes on to state that “the arts are often used as a way for atypically developing children to learn or show abilities that they might not otherwise be able to demonstrate” (p.1509), which especially beneficial for social, cognitive, and emotional development in these children. The article Drama and Learning Science: An Empty Space? from British Educational Research Journal, Volume 41, Number 1, February 2015, by Martin Braund looks at a more specific application of the arts a part of constructivist teaching methods for science classes. Braund (2015) describe drama an “active approach to learning” (p.103), stating that “the learner plays an integral part in the construction and reconstruction of knowledge, often by interaction with other learners and the teacher” (p.103).
That said, Braund (2015) notes that in the classroom “there is no difference between actor and audience; the learner is both participant and observer, playing a role while interacting with others in a role” (p.109). Braund (2015) also examines the need for argument in science and the relationship between drama and argumentation stating that “drama, where pupils take on specific roles of protagonists in discussion and resolution of issues has been suggested as a productive way to engage pupils in scientific argument” (p.106). By showing the benefits of drama science education, Braund (2015) illustrates a possible link between cognitive and intellectual development and the arts, especially when used as a part of a constructivist learning model. Braund (2015) concludes that “drama works because it provides relief from the tedium of much science teaching with the bonus of improved engagement and interest for pupils who experience it” (p.117).
In How Theatre within a Transformative Organizing Framework Cultivates Individual and Collective Empowerment Among LGBTQQ Youth from Journal of Community Psychology, Volume 42, Number 7, 2014, Laura J. Wernick, Alex Kulick, and Michael R. Woodford look at the impact that storytelling through creating drama in community-based theatre can have on social and emotional development in adolescents. Wernick et al., (2014) state that “Storytelling breaks down isolation and builds community” (p.834).
Through exploring this principal, Wernick et al., (2014) found that “the process of engaging in theater together helped participants become closer together and to overcome feelings of self-consciousness and self-doubt…” (p.844) and that “the practice of telling stories in theatre games… provided participants with practical skills and confidence that they were able to translate into making individual-level changes in many areas of their own lives” (p.847). By tying this research to marginalized youth in the LGBTQQ population, Wernick et al., (2014) showcase the potential for the arts to be an expressive tool for people who may not able to share in other ways. The next article, Effects of an Expressive Art Intervention with Urban Youth in Low-Income Neighborhoods from Child Adolescent Social Work Journal, Volume 33 (2016) by Shandra S. Forrest-Bank, Nicole Nicotera, Dawn Matera Bassett, and Peter Ferrerone again examine the impact that involvement in the arts can have on marginalized populations. Forrest-Bank et al., (2016) discusses the “principles of PYD (Positive Youth Development) referred to as the 6 Cs (Competence, Connection, Character, Confidence, Caring and Compassion, and Contribution)” (p.431) which “represent the characteristic or attributes associated with adolescent thriving (Lerner at al., 2005)” (p.431). Forrest-Bank et al., (2016) then explains the 6 Cs, which related directly to cognitive, social, and emotional development and how expressive art can be used therapeutically to help people deal with emotions and make sense of the world. Through participation in an arts program which “guides youth to write and perform poetry around different themes and topics” (p.433) Forrest-Bank et al., (2016) explore the benefit of a creative outlet on young, low-income participants. The results of the study conducted by Forrest-Bank et al., (2016) “suggest and alignment between PYD and the arts intervention” (p.439), rather than a direct correction because while one of the groups showed a significant benefit, but the other group did not.
However, the findings of increased empathy show the possible link between arts programs and emotional development. In Effect of a Performing Arts Program on the Oral Language Skills of Young English Learner from International Literacy Association’s Reading Research Quarterly, Volume 50, Number 2 (2014), Christa Mulker Greenfader, Liane Brouilette, and George Farkas examine the effectiveness of the Teaching Artist Program (TAP) on K-2 English Learners (ELs). Integration of TAP into the classroom required teachers to combine dramatizing activities with “movement, language, gesture, and expression with English oral language practice” (Greenfader et al., 2014, p. 191). Their analyses showed that “the K-2 ELs who participated in TAP performed better on the CELDT speaking assessment than those students who did not receive the treatment … and those ELs who had the most limited English speaking skills benefited most from TAP” (Greenfader et al., 2014, p.198). Both teachers who participated in the study noted that “the drama and creative movement activities engaged ELs and promoted their overall English language comprehension” (Greenfader et al., 2014, p. 199), which is important to acknowledge, as language is a key component of cognitive and social development.
The final article, How Brain Research Can Inform Music Teaching from Music Educators Journal, Volume 101, Issue 4 (2015) by Donald J. Walter and Jennifer S. Walter looks at the physical process of myelination which is “when glial cells notice that a particular neural circuit is being fired repeatedly, such as when someone practices a motor skill, they wrap axons in that circuit with myelin” (p.51). Walter and Walter (2015) explore the physical development in the brain that takes place when someone practices a motor skill, like playing a music instrument. As observed by Walter and Walter (2015) when music students practice the “repetitions cause the body to fire neural circuits many times. As the circuits fire repeatedly, synaptic connections are strengthened and glial cells apply myelin around axons in the brain to improve the speed, coordination, and ease of transmission of neural impulses” (p.54). This process is the most concrete link I have found in research to prove the relationship between cognitive development and participation in the arts.
Though current research does not prove conclusively that participation in theatre and music has a substantial impact of the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children and adolescents, there are many examples of arts programs benefiting participants or having no effect. However, as observed by Walker and Walker (2015) “the things people do change the structures of their brains” (p.53) and participation in the arts is not an exception to this principle. Additionally, I was not able to locate any data that could prove that participation in the arts had a detrimental effect on development, the results were either positive or null. Research also indicates that children and adolescents who are considered different societally (Wernick et al., 2014), are economically disadvantaged (Forrest-Bank et al., 2016), or have less advanced skills (Greenfader et al., 2014) often benefit most from creative arts interventions and programs.
In education, it is important to remember that no two students learn the exact same way. For this reason, educators must remember that exposing students to creative and active learning practices, like incorporating theatre and music into the classroom, can be beneficial for helping children and adolescents develop socially, emotionally, and cognitively, especially students who may not respond to traditional instruction methods. Theatre, music, and other artistic pursuits also have the potential to engage and motivate learners. As discussed by Foster and Jenkins (2017) arts programs also offer young people an alternative to potentially detrimental behavior and a creative outlet for dealing with the world, as explored by Forrest-Bank et al., (2016) and Wernick et al., (2014). Participation in the arts can be therapeutic and reinforce positive behavior, which can prevent damage to cognitive functions and enhance social and emotional development. Though these impacts can be difficult to measure, their potential should not be overlooked or discounted.
Several limitations exist with research into the impact that performing arts can have on human development. First, there are a limited number of studies on participation in theatre and music and its direct correlation to human development. Goldstein et al., (2017) point out that “issues of Childhood Development are likely to feature articles on factors such as temperament, vocabulary, executive functions, decision making, social groups, and ethnic identities, but almost never on involvement in the arts…” (p.1505).
Additionally, small sample sizes and diverse group dynamics complicate isolation of participation in the arts as a variable that could potentially be responsible for a person’s development. Furthermore, participant interest in the arts is difficult to measure through anything other than voluntary reporting and could impact the effectiveness of such programming on participants. As stated by Foster and Jenkins (2017) “when children have a spark – a passion for a self-identified interest or skill – this purpose and direction allows them to thrive and make positive contributions in community and civic life (Boebek, Zaff, Li, & Lerner, 2009)” (p.411). However, forcing student participation in the arts could have the opposite effect. Additionally, finding a large, representative sample and being able to measure social, emotional, and cognitive development directly against participation in arts programs could be costly and impractical. Finally, the growth shown by participants can often be subjective and difficult to measure.
As future research seeks to prove the link between participation in performing arts and human development, it would be beneficial to examine why certain groups saw positive outcomes and why others did not. Making sure to eliminate as many variables as possible is necessary, as well. Overall the best way to prove causality would be an increase in long-term studies where arts instruction and participation are offered to children at a young age and following this impact through adulthood and measuring growth and development directly against artistic experiences. Studies with only a few short weeks or even years are not enough to prove causation definitely. Conclusion In summation, while this paper was not able to prove concretely the impact that participation in performing arts, primarily theatre and music, can have on a person, socially, emotionally, and cognitively as they progress and develop through childhood and adolescence, research did show several examples of participants in arts programs advancing developmentally.
Despite not being able to prove causality, as Goldstein et al., (2017) concludes “any activity as universal and engaging as the arts is likely to have important cognitive and social and emotional functions. Developmental scientists cannot afford to ignore such central real-world behavior” (p.1511).
- Foster, E., & Jenkins, J. (2017). Does participation in music and performing arts influence child development? American Educational Research Journal, 54(3), 399-443.
- Goldstein, T., Lerner, M., & Winner, E. (2017). The arts as a venue for developmental science: realizing a latent opportunity. Child Development, 88(5), 1505-1512.
- Braund, M. (2015). Drama and learning science: An empty space? British Educational Research Journal, 41(1), 102-121.
- Wernick, L., Kulick, A., & Woodford, M. (2014). How theater within a transformative organizing framework cultivates individual and collective empowerment among lqbtqq youth. Journal of Community Psychology, 42(7), 838-853. doi:10.1002/jcop.21656
- Forrest-Bank, S., Nicotera, N., Bassett, D., & Ferrarone, P. (2016). Effects of an expressive art intervention with urban youth in low-income neighborhoods. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 33(5), 429-441. doi:10.1007/s10560-016-0439-3
- Greenfader, C., Brouillette, L., & Farkas, G. (2015). Effect of a performing arts program on the oral language skills of young English learners. Reading Research Quarterly, 50(2), 185-203. doi:10.1002/rrq.90
- Donald, J., & Jennifer, S. (2015). Skill development : how brain research can inform music teaching. Music Educators Journal, 101(4), 49-55. doi:10.1177/0027432115574555