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Why the arts are crucial to your child's development

There is nothing more gratifying for a parent than to see his or her child stand squarely on his own two feet, emanating a strong sense of self. In that moment, you start to believe there is a good chance that they will lead a self-determined life -- a life guided by their own north star and not by the myriad of external forces.

Why does a strong sense of self matter so much? Because when children find their authentic voice, the cacophony of life can never take center stage. The child is always in the driver's seat and, at any time, they can return to a certainty they hold deep inside that they will be OK, regardless of the surrounding din.

School enters into a child's world after much of a child's sense of self has already been established, for better or for worse. So educators face a Herculean task every day, especially when a child hasn't gotten the parental support he or she needs.

Today's school systems are structured around the concept of accountability -- especially adults' accountability to other adults who are trying to create a productive workforce and responsible citizens for the future. In most cases, especially in public education, our deeper accountability to the child's own authentic development is not foremost.

If education's charge became helping every child develop his or her authentic self, we would have to embrace arts education's vital role in the curriculum. Why? Because if there is one thing that is certain about the impact of excellent arts education, it is its ability to cultivate creative habits of mind and a strong sense of self.

We need to foster the creative imagination, self-worth, and happiness of young people, and engaging them in artistic expression is one powerful step in that direction.

These days, arts education is asked to prove itself in terms of improving test scores in core subjects. Studies by James Catterall at UCLA show that students with greater arts participation perform better on standardized tests; still, the arts remain relegated to the margins. This is a result of education's current goal post. When the goal post is creating a workforce, engaging students fully in their own development takes second priority to learning the basics.

But when arts education is asked to prove itself in terms of developing an authentic voice, things change substantially. In a quality arts classroom, students are engaged in projects that have deep meaning for them, that engage them socially and emotionally in ways other subjects rarely can. Creative habits of mind such as persistence and discipline, tolerance for ambiguity, reflection and metaphorical thinking are practiced in the same way as multiplication tables are practiced. Yet, students are able to mine the depth of themselves and their own capacities in ways memorizing multiplication tables would never offer. And when practiced regularly, these habits become tools critical for navigating the world and its intense complexity.

If you have the resources, you can send your child to a school with these different goal posts. Such schools have the luxury of a less political environment and can explore the multi-faceted learning children need to thrive. Private education offers a refuge for parents who find the focus on accountability and its under-resourced environment totally untenable. But for other people's children, there is no such refuge.

When we chose to refer to every child as 'our children,' and when we imagine ourselves as responsible for the well-being of all young people, we insist on a different design for education. No longer would schools be focused mainly on creating the workforce of the future. As deeply invested mothers and fathers, we could demand that they be designed to help every child find their own north star, that being our greatest hope.

So take a moment to imagine yourself the mother or father of a child at Bailey Gatzert or Thurgood Marshall Elementary Schools -- schools with critically limited resources. Imagine how important it would be to you that your child have access to the arts as a means of discovering his or her own best self, since you know that will offer an excellent chance at happiness. And imagine the expression on your child's face when the awareness of his or her own worth blossoms into certainty. That's our vision for the future, and our hope for every child.

For more information, visit www.artscorps.org and www.kirlinfoundation.org.

Lisa Fitzhugh is a founder of Arts Corps. Ron Rabin is Executive Director of the Kirlin Charitable Foundation.

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