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What Art Teaches Children

Written by Nina Schyuler

An experience to draw on: Art study sharpens aesthetic sensibility, makes kids better students.

When they come in big bunches, 6- and 7-year-olds have a hard time holding still. Fidgeting, shoving, throwing themselves down on the ground or jumping up in the air, they seem incapable of containing the energy radiating out of them.

But peer into Rita Davies' first-and second-grade class at Oxford Elementary School in Berkeley, Calif., and you'll find an altogether different kind of energy.

Hunched with focused attention over sheets of paper, 20 children are drawing with colored pencils or painting with tempera. An aliveness suffuses their faces. The walls are similarly awash in color with their earlier creations, paintings of haunted houses, scary monsters and, in a richness that fills the entire page, their self-portraits.

"Art teaches kids independence and how to make choices," says Davies, who serves as a liaison to the Museum of Children's Art (MOCHA), which helps bring art to public schools. "Art is about soul and spirit in motion. If you only educate the mind, it becomes dangerous."

In a recent study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, researchers found that students who listened to music had enhanced spatial skills. Children who engaged in the visual arts exhibited stronger reading skills. Despite these findings, many public schools have been forced to slash their arts programs.

Institutions such as Oxford Elementary are trying to reverse the trend that has seen the elementary school curriculum trimmed down to its basics. "Art is not a frill," says Arlene Shmaeff, education program director at MOCHA, which is based in Oakland, California. "It's a core learning mode. Our goal is to make art accessible to all children."

Once a week in 1997, a MOCHA artist went to Oxford Elementary and taught children about line, shape, mixing colors and perspective. The teachers at Oxford counted themselves among the artist's pupils, something that's not typical in most arts programs. "The problem with some programs is that once the pastries are gone, it's over," says Shmaeff. "We wanted a sustainable program." Through MOCHA, teachers learn how to teach art and integrate it into the curriculum.

MOCHA has placed artists at 15 San Francisco Bay Area elementary schools. The program also holds children's art classes at the museum, as well as weekend workshops, camps, birthday party painting classes and a drop-in art program.

As curly-haired Kyle Strang, one of Davies' students, is about to charge outside for recess, he stops to look at his self-portrait, clearly mesmerized. "I'm standing under a rainbow," he says, pointing to his painting. "I hadn't planned to paint it. It just came out. Isn't that surprising?"

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