The importance of an art education

Do children really need art education? Richard Jolley thinks it’s an essential part of personal development.

Child painting at a table with pots of paint in foregroundArt education for children has come under political and curriculum pressure in recent years. Even though the subject of art and design is on the national curriculum, the focus of successive governments on literacy, maths and science has marginalised its teaching in primary schools. In secondary schools, the planned exclusion of art from the English Baccalaureate is further evidence of the diminishing significance which government attributes to art in the curriculum. 

But what effect is the sidelining of art having on our children's education? Art educationalists, and psychologists who study children's art, claim that it promotes educational benefits that other school subjects cannot1-2. These benefits come both from practising art and from learning about it. This suggests that the continued marginalisation of art in schools prevents children from gaining a broad and well-rounded education. So what are the benefits of art education?

The Creative and Visual Thinker

     Imagination and Creativity.  Children can take their experiences of the world and transform them through art, making new connections and relationships through their inventive minds. Their knowledge, memories and fantasies all feed their imagination. Art allows children to explore, build on and record their own creative and imaginative ideas.

     Expression.  Making pictures allows children to express their feelings and ideas, both as a means of self-expression and to communicate to others. These may include reliving a happy event they recently experienced (a birthday party or a day out), or drawing out some sad feelings as a therapeutic exercise. Older children may use pictures for more conceptual purposes, expressing their concerns and ideas.

     Visual thinking.  Pictures encourage us to think about and understand the world visually, instead of restricting learning and the acquisition of knowledge to words and numbers alone. Visual thinking helps children learn other subjects. It is a skill used in a wide variety of professions, including the sciences as well as the arts.

     Observational skills.  Making pictures helps children observe the subject matter of the real-world scene they are drawing from more closely, and makes them better observers of detail in the world around them. Developing observational skills through picture-making facilitates the child’s visual sensitivity to the world.

     Problem solving and analytical skills.  Pictures enable children to explore and test out ideas, while making decisions on how they choose to depict them. For instance, children will learn problem-solving skills as they grapple with trying to create a three-dimensional scene from the world on a two-dimensional page. With practice, children learn that concentration and persistence allow them to get closer to the pictures they are trying to achieve.

     Autonomy.  A child’s picture is his or her own. It has worth in its own right, without having to be measured or judged by others as right or wrong. The child has the authority to say what the picture is of, or what it communicates, building up their confidence and self-esteem.

A Creative Education

Although we still need more research to test these claims, we know that areas within the right hemisphere of the brain are the primary seat for processing and developing the learning gained through participation in art activities. It is likely, therefore, that an art education teaches a specific set of thinking skills not adequately addressed elsewhere in the curriculum. Children need a broad education that includes the arts, and the continued development of our society depends upon a creative education.

Dr Richard Jolley is Senior Lecturer in Child Psychology at Staffordshire University.

  1. Jolley, R.P. (2010).  Children and Pictures: drawing and understanding.  Wiley-Blackwell.
  2. Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S. & Sheridan, K.M. (2013).  Studio Thinking 2: the real benefits of visual arts education (2nd edition). Teachers College Press.


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