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The Arts in Early Childhood Education

For years we have known that early childhood is at once the most rapid and most vulnerable period of human development outside the womb. That was the realization at the heart of Head Start programs as far back as the 1960s. Nearly a half-century of research has proven that investing in high quality early education increases children’s lifetime earnings and their chances of being employed while decreasing their probability of becoming incarcerated or reliant on public assistance as adults. At long last, these findings are taking root. In New York City, the new Mayor has promised full-day pre-K education for every 4-year-old in the city. In Indianapolis, two private foundations are offering the city major donations to launch its 350-million-dollar public pre-school initiative. And Tennessee has invested in universal pre-K education statewide.

The arts have a crucial role to play in shaping the nature of these emerging early education programs. Researchers have found that, by age three, there exists a big enough gap between the number of words children from poor families know and the number of words children from families with professional jobs know that they have labeled this divergence the “word gap” and are calling it the precursor to the achievement gap. But before you imagine vocabulary lessons or mandated lunch conversations for three-year-olds, consider the role that storytelling, make-believe, and creative dramatics could have in closing that gap. Or think about the evidence from the Harmony Project that shows how music training enhances young children’s ability to focus on and discriminate meaningful acoustic cues – such as the sounds that distinguish words and support early reading. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for healthcare workers, professionals, and families alike to use every possible channel for early, fluent, and affectionate communication.

Unsurprisingly, there is parallel evidence that the arts contribute to children’s social and emotional development as well. An evaluation of Kaleidescope, an arts-enriched pre-school sponsored by Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, has found that enrolled children gain an increased capacity to express and regulate their feelings. Moreover, following their time in Kaleidescope’s arts-integrated sessions, young children show significantly lower levels of cortisol, a hormone linked to stress.

Mediocre programs, on the other hand, don’t carry these kinds of benefits and are, at best, custodial. So, as early education initiatives gather momentum, it is vital to build excellence into these early encounters. For example, Carnegie Hall is developing a lullaby project designed to support young families who are living under stressful circumstances like single parenthood, unemployment, or homelessness. Even though the intervention is brief (3 sessions) staff and artists alike are wrestling with how to teach song- and lyric-writing to novices, how to design a recording session that gives parents a sense of their own agency and creativity, and how to present a final concert in ways that celebrate and acknowledge the hard work of being an adult and a parent. The point: to share life-long tools for mutual soothing, creating moments of intimacy, and communicating through music.

Now is the time. Museums, concert halls, and theater companies have new work and new audiences — coupled with the responsibility to use the excellence of the arts to inform and drive the quality of early childhood programs.

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