Four white sheets of paper are hung on a washing line. On each sheet there are multiple hand prints made in blue paint.

Sometimes overlooked when thinking about vital elements of a child’s development, art and cultural experiences provide a range of benefits that are fundamental to future health and wellbeing. First Breath – an extraordinary project celebrating new life in Greater Manchester – is tackling this head on. As well as a light installation illuminating the Factory International site in January 2023, the project connects with families throughout Greater Manchester to support early years development and introduce art and culture to everyday life from a young age. 

In this guest blog, clinical psychologist Kat Taylor takes a closer look at how the arts can aid emotional, social, cognitive and linguistic growth, as well as strengthening parent-child bonds and building self-confidence. Kat is also manager of the arts, culture and mental health programme in Manchester’s i-THRIVE programme which is designed to improve services for young people’s mental health across Greater Manchester. Over to Kat for her expert take on arts and early years development. 

A white sheet of paper with abstract and colourful crayon and paint marks

Expression and communication

Have you ever seen a child absorbed in drawing or painting, carefully (or carelessly!) selecting colours and shapes? Or concentrating on making their own playdough creature or landscape?

We might see such activities as fun – and they are! – but there is also deceptive amount of learning happening for any child engaged in creative activity. A creative learning environment helps to develop a range of social, emotional and practical skills – and improves children’s chances of effectively making their way into the world.

For thousands of years humans have reflected the world around us, for instance by making marks and creating song. Play and creativity are crucial to child development, and the beauty of the arts is that you may not realise that your child is learning so much – and neither do they! Making art and engaging in arts activities can help a child understand the world and others – and helps us to get to know our children better – and even understand how they see themselves. Creating art allows children to work through feelings and emotions in age-appropriate ways, even before their language skills are well-developed.

When parents pay attention to their child’s art, the child learns that their thoughts and experiences can be communicated to others. From a very young age, a child can understand their own influence when an adult responds to them. This can help parents attune to their child’s needs and interests, and builds the foundation of trust.

Studies show that exposure to music, literature and arts have profound impacts on the development of vocabulary and emotional literacy – how they communicate verbally and express emotions. Children who are not given these opportunities may be at a disadvantage in later life.

Critical thinking and problem solving

Creative activity involves experimentation: testing out ideas, working through challenges, making decisions and processes of discovery. Trying out new ideas on the safety of the page or in performance can translate into the confidence to try new things elsewhere.

The natural curiosity of children is well-supported through creative activity, which can encourage imaginative play, the development of critical thinking skills and promote self-esteem.

Also remember that the arts are vital industry which contributes £10.7 billion per year to the UK economy. Book publishing, performing arts and artistic creation are the three largest categories of activity.

A woman holds a baby with blue paint on its feet. Next to them are sheets of paper with blue paint on them.
An impression of a handprint in blue paint on white card

Social and emotional skills 

Have you ever felt moved by a song, a performance or a book? Exchanges of feelings and expression using art lays the foundation for understanding and regulating emotions.

Concentration and motivation 

Creative exploration offers the potential to engage for lengthy periods of time, improving attention and concentration. The quality of what children see and feel encourages this, so use the best materials you can get hold of.

Physical development

The arts can help support motor skills through expressive movement and dance, as well as fine motor skills through the use of art-making materials.

So what kind of activities should parents use to encourage early exposure to the arts?

It’s good to remember that the outcome, and even the method, is not important. Art-making contains a range of processes and interactions that all matter more than what is actually produced. It might also be helpful to remember that many artists, for example, Van Gogh, were not recognised for their talents during their lifetime! Art is very much matter of taste and there is never a right or wrong – another useful concept for the developing, unique minds of our children to grasp.

So – try to avoid directing your child towards what they are making, instead commenting on how and why they are doing so. Describe what you see and ask questions – and don’t worry about the final creation. If you can remember that art-making can support a surprising range of developmental tasks, you can simply enjoy the journey!

Art-making is ancient, universal and vital to our species – in fact, we are the only species who make art. Art is not the icing on the cake, but rather a key ingredient baked in to us all since prehistoric times.

From singing round a campfire and passing on wisdom through song, to watching movies to relax – we may be beginning to conduct the research to better understand their impact now, but the value of culture and the arts has always been hiding in plain sight.

Find out more about First Breath here.

Read Kat Taylor's blog for more insights on how art can improve connections, health and wellbeing.

An adult and child's hands play with clay. The child has a bracelet made from clay around their wrist while the adult has a clay ring.
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