Finding Joy in the Arts—Even into Adolescence

By Abby Crawford

As we celebrate Arts in Education Week, I’ve been reflecting on everything good that happens #becauseofartsed. This was a summer of learning for me. I planned and participated in a wealth of arts education workshops and seminars and lectures…lots of time to think and lots of time to reflect…and through it all something emerged: Kids learn to give up on the arts by watching grown-ups give up on the arts every single day.

I have a five year old.  She’s crazy and loud and loves dancing and singing. She genuinely believes she is the best dancer on the planet.  She can’t wait to throw on her shoes and head to class twice a week. It is my mission to nurture her steadfast belief in herself on the dance floor.

Yet, I know I can’t.

Harsh? Yes. But true. One of the things I learned this summer was a real lightbulb moment for me: the relationship between brain development and artistic development is undeniable. As we age and become more aware of the world, our understanding of what qualifies as “good” becomes clear. We see Van Gogh and we know, without a doubt, it looks much better than our paintings. We watch Misty Copeland and are sure, 100%, that she was born to dance in a way that we were just…not. We hear Bruno Mars and realize that our shower concerts are just not quite at his level. And so, slowly, our confidence and desire to keep participating in the arts fades. It’s a direct relationship: The more aware we are of what the world accepts as “great” art, the more likely we are to slowly back away.

In my work in schools, we see this every single day. Our elementary aged kids are ready for anything. Like my daughter, they’re easily up and moving and trying things out. As they mature, we start to see a shift (usually around 9 years old) where there is more reluctance in the room. Through middle and high school, the trend continues. Our teaching artists work hard to understand and invest in our students to guide them through this transition. Understanding the cognitive shift behind the reluctance is an incredibly important first step.

At COCA, we know that the arts enrich lives and build community. Period. Simply engaging in the artistic process can revolutionize your outlook, can connect you with folks you might never have met, and can teach you things you didn’t realize you needed to know. It doesn’t matter if the end result is a masterpiece or a mess, it’s how you got there that leaves the real impact. In fact, this idea – which at COCA we call, developing craft – is one of the core tenets of our educational philosophy, the Studio Habits of Mind, a framework developed by a research team from Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And, it’s just as important for adults as it is for kids…it just gets a bit harder as we age. But the good news is: we can do hard things!

One of the most powerful ways to buck the trend and support young artists in pushing through the cognitive dissonance is by stepping in and modeling vulnerability as an adult. Our teaching artists employ this strategy every single day. And, it’s something all of us can do!

Three ways to model the power of the artistic process with the young people in your life:

Make it a team effort! One of my amazing colleagues, Shawna Flanigan, did just that this summer. To answer a challenge from her husband, Steve, Shawna recruited a group of family members to take a tap class together. Had they ever taken tap before? Nope! Were they as good as Gene Kelly? Probably not. But, who cares! The artistic process was alive and well for their family, and they had a blast. Shawna and Steve also modeled vulnerability for their kids.

Take a field trip!
Last year, a friend of mine shared a fun activity she did while raising her daughter. It’s so simple and so powerful! Your work won’t look just like your inspiration piece, and that’s okay!

  1. Go to an art museum
  2. Check out the art
  3. Go to the gift shop
  4. Pick out a postcard of your favorite piece from your visit (art museum gift shops are a FANTASTIC place to get art prints for a dollar or two)
  5. Take the postcards home and recreate the art on your own
  6. Here’s the most important step: sit next to each other while you do this. Share the experience.

Tell your story!
One of the weird choices I made in college was to minor in Studio Art. I was a double Political Science and Communications major, and I just needed an outlet. Was I in over my head? Absolutely! I remember one assignment in my second color and design class really had me stumped. We were recreating portraits using a variety of different techniques. I had to use pointillism to create this woman’s eye and some of her hairline. It was hard. I started and restarted probably a dozen times. I never got it exactly how I wanted. I always felt disappointed in the assignment, and it’s stuck with me for nearly 20 years because of the memory it created. In a later semester, I created a sculpture so large that I couldn’t get it out of my dorm room without disassembling part of it. Another example of a less than stellar moment. Do I regret my minor and those classes? Not for one second. Engaging in the artistic process was integral to my health as a student. I felt balanced and whole, even if I was the least “talented” student in just about every single class. Now, it’s my job to share that story with others so that my vulnerability is on display and, in doing so, the world becomes safer for risks for other people.

Arts education transforms lives. Not because it creates artists. But, because it creates well-rounded, confident, critical thinkers, ready to take on the world.

We must defy human nature, overcome our insecurities, and cling to those transformative arts experiences throughout our lives, and help our children cling to them, too.

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