Is there a direct correlation between early childhood learning experiences and high school graduation rates? Are students’ academic learning outcomes in later years, predetermined by the quality of their early childhood education? Research on the subject is all over the place, but, from what I have read, science strongly suggests the answer to these questions is “maybe.”

“…early childhood is the most important inflection point in our lives”

Although I am not a researcher, my experience as an arts educator tells me that early childhood is the most important inflection point in our lives, and that artistic experiences are key elements for the healthy development of the human mind. This belief is why we have nursery rhymes, fairy tales, toys­­all the colorful and imaginative things that we commonly associate with childhood.

As a teaching artist who has worked extensively in early childhood education, and as a parent of young children, it seems clear to me that a child who is encouraged to be curious is more likely to develop into a curious adult. Conversely, a young child whose curiosity is discouraged is more likely to end up sitting in the back of their high school classroom with their book closed in front of them. Pre­-school and elementary age children, whose natural desire to explore often results in behavior that irritates their teachers, get messages such as “sit up straight” and “color inside the lines.” Even worse, I have recently noticed an alarming trend toward the idea that the way to close the academic achievement gap is to toughen up academic instruction in early childhood. The working notion seems to be that children, especially poor children, need more rigor in their early childhood education.

This line of thinking disturbs me, because recent research indicates that our very young children need more freedom to play and explore, not less. In fact, according to this study (Tullis, Scientific American, 2011.) “early exposure to academics” has the potential “to psychologically damage developing brains.” Although I am an advocate for Common Core, I know rigorous drilling and testing, have little to do with the intention of Common Core, and I’m not the only one to notice that something may be getting lost in the translation by education policy makers.

I am not saying that young children shouldn’t be challenged, or teachers held accountable. I am saying the kind of structured play and exploration that can be provided through arts education is exactly what young minds need to develop, and that we should focus our efforts on make arts education more widely accessible for all our children. There is research to support what I confess is simply my intuition and observation. For example, a study of a cross­ section of 3,000 children across England, showed that an extended period of high quality, play-based pre­-school education was of particular advantage to children from disadvantaged households. (University of Cambridge, 2013)

Sometimes, especially when I am working in a Title I High School classroom, I wonder how the public school system manages to turn so many of our playful, curious toddlers into sullen, apathetic, teenagers. Obviously, some of the apathy we see in teens is just a natural part of growing up, but I do wonder how things might turn out differently, if we were really committed to making sure that every child from birth­ was given the opportunity to learn through serious play.

“The public school system manages to turn so many of our playful, curious toddlers into sullen, apathetic, teenagers.”

In my idealized early childhood classroom, children from the ages of birth­ to 7 are working artists in a continual state of creativity and exploration. They are painters, actors, singers, directors, playwrights. I see young children playing by creating worlds with blocks, looking at and making their own books with words and images in them, using a magnifying glass outside to gain inspiration from nature, painting and drawing on the walls, engaging in authentic reflective conversations, and taking age­ appropriate creative risks by using new words, singing, dancing, and role ­playing.

Engaging seriously in all of the five commonly accepted art forms (Dance, Theatre, Visual Arts, Writing, and Music) teaches children how to collaborate and regulate themselves. For example, by designing and building imaginary cities, a group of 5 year olds must learn how to work together without knocking over each other’s blocks. They also must manage their bodies so they don’t bump into another. When children use their imaginations, they are examining the way people interact in the real world and are engaged in conflict resolution together.

When they are using a magnifying glass, they unearth the way the glass changes their visual perception. When they are painting and drawing, they are using the arts to deepen their understanding of their emotions and the world around them. Through authentic reflective dialogue, they are learning how to sit still and listen, and how to self­ advocate for their ideas and feelings.

What begins as play and self ­regulation in early childhood leads to resiliency and critical thinking in high school. The New York Times reported recently that “persistence, planning, the ability to communicate and the capacity to collaborate” are the “core behavioral elements that drive college and career readiness.” (New York Times, 2014) Shortening the time children have for recess, and giving first­ graders standardized exams is not the way to close the achievement gap, or raise the graduation rate.

Making early childhood education more rigorous and boring for children is not the answer, but it definitely satisfies the adult need to feel like we are making a serious effort to address the hugely complex problem of academic failure in so many of our urban high schools.

Watching my students, and my own children, learn through play has convinced me that play­-based learning experiences are the way forward and that arts education is the antidote to a culture that is increasing isolating and anti-­intellectual. Too many students, especially low ­income children, don’t get the kind of play ­based, arts ­rich experiences that could help them grow into curious, playful, creative adults. The experts (Daniel Pink, Drive) keep telling us that imagination and creativity are the 21st Century skills.

“Only 37% of New York City students are college and career ready.”

Maybe it’s not because they are bad students. Maybe it’s because they didn’t have arts education and the chance to engage in structured play when they were younger.

Written by: James Miles
Project Director @ FreshEd


Originally published at Teacher Voice.