​​​​​​​The Diminishing Role of Art in Children’s Lives

Preschoolers scribbling with markers and crayons on a large white paperStory image for Art from The Atlantic


Ik ben ik”—I am me—was the classroom theme when my son started preschool in the Netherlands two years ago. He painted a portrait of himself, with exaggerated teeth only on the bottom row and three strands of wiry hair on his head (“hair is hard,” he later told me). He went on to depict his home life: our canal-side house more wavy than erect; his father and I standing beside a cat we do not own; and his baby sister next to him while his other sister—his nemesis at the time—was completely absent. It was the first real glimpse we had into his experiences and sense of self, and it was both insightful and entertaining.

My house is covered in the artwork of my three children. My middle child’s self-portrait, for example, is framed and featured in our living room, with her bold red hair painted in broad stripes and a third eye she claims is magic; my son’s bedroom wall displays his sketching of a giraffe. What my kids cannot express in written language they delight in sharing through their scribbles.

As much evidence will support, drawing has significant developmental benefits for young children. It gives them space to represent what they think—territory within which they can exaggerate what is important to them or express ideas they are not yet able to verbalize. Through art, children are able to describe and reveal their notions about themselves, the world, and their place in it.

The role of drawing in enhancing childhood development has been acknowledged since art education first became a part of public-school curricula in the Commonwealth states in 1870.  A wealth of research has shown a strong link between the scribbles of preschoolers and their early stages of written language and reading. Drawing also helps prepare children for success in other subject areas, including explaining and communicating mathematical reasoning, which assists in their comprehension and communication of math concepts, according to an analysis by the California State University, Chico, professors Susan Steffani and Paula M. Selvester.

More generally, extensive evidence suggests that exposure to art in school has long-term academic and social benefits for kids, especially those who are economically disadvantaged. A 2012 study by the United States’ National Endowment for the Arts, for example, found that low-income eighth-graders who had lots of exposure to the arts were more likely than their peers with less exposure to earn higher grades and attend college.

But according to new research conducted in the Netherlands by the Dutch school inspectorate, the amount of time children spend drawing by hand both in and out of school has been reduced over the last 20 years; the study also found that their artwork has declined significantly in quality and complexity