Arts foster success in children

Published 4:01 am Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lifestyles & Features Editor

A handful of clay, a tray of paints, music to dance to — they’re much more than tools to entertain a child.
They can also set the stage for future successes in life, according to Joey Toler, executive director of the Beaufort County Arts Council.
“If you talk to any Fortune 500 company, two of the top things they’re looking for in new hires are creativity and innovative thinking,” Toler said. “And the arts foster that kind of thinking.”
There’s arts education — band class, art and music classes — and there’s art IN education.
“You can use the arts to teach core curriculum, such as reading, writing, math and science,” Toler said of arts in education. “When you use the arts to teach these subjects, the students learn much more quickly and they retain it.”
But the arts oftentimes take a back seat to other facets of education. Funding is a stumbling block.
“When budgets get tight, the arts are usually the first place people look to cut to save money,” Toler said. “It’s such a disservice, especially for students who don’t participate in sports — and no one cuts funding for sports. For a lot of kids, the only way they can showcase their talents is through the arts. It’s just not fair, and you’ve got some of your most talented and most creative people who are left out in the cold.”
While most schools can boast of an adequate arts program, others are lacking.
“In North Carolina, a student can go from kindergarten through 12th grade without having an art class,” Toler said. “It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.”
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, along with the Department of Cultural Resources, has been asked to come up with recommendations for guidelines for art in the public schools, Toler added.
Senate Bill 66 would require one unit in either drama, dance, theater or music, as well as making the arts a middle school elective requirement, according to information provided by the N.C. Arts Council. It would insure access to quality arts education for students in kindergarten through fifth grade and offer increased support for arts education in after school, early learning and community-based programs.
At least one local public school administrator agrees.
“I was raised in a family that placed a tremendous focus on the arts in education,” said Russell Holloman, principal at Washington High School. “Both my mother and father are artists and my mother is a retired art teacher. There was never a time in my life where I believed that a visual arts class or music class was just a ‘filler’ between math and science. Those classes have always been important to me and I would spend as much time on my music or painting as I did on grammar and calculus.”
The staff and students at WHS are reaping the benefits of Holloman’s dedication to the arts and his support of the arts programs in the school. In fact, he’s been recognized as one of the North Carolina Art Education Association’s “Friend of the Arts.”
“There is too much research that shows that the arts help students grow cognitively, socially and personally to brush them aside as unnecessary,” Holloman said. “The visual and performing arts provide a very important bridge for learning so that students can connect information from their core area classes together and form new ideas.”
Sarah Hodges, public information officer for Beaufort County Schools, agrees.
“Well nurtured creativity and curiosity can open doors and take a young person to places they would never know,” she said. “We must build the creative skills of our youth in order for them to become competitors in the ever changing global economy.”
The BCAC does its part to make sure youngsters are exposed to the arts at an early age. It partners with Beaufort County Schools in bringing visiting artists to the classrooms, sponsors performances and artist residencies and hosts Art Camp every summer. BCAC also hosts a Student Art School annually.
“We partner to bring in artists beyond what the students get in their normal day-to-day classroom curriculum,” Toler noted. “We try to enhance what is already there, to build upon it, because it is important.”
Carolyn Sleeper, a pottery artist and teacher, has been active with BCAC’s Art Camp and coordinates her own Clay Camps at her studio on Slatestone Road in Washington. She believes children’s experiences in the arts enriches their lives.
“Creativity is not relegated only to the arts. It’s independent thinking that encourages the arts,” Sleeper said. “Giving children the chance to express themselves with a creative outlet will enhance their overall emotion and academic well being. Plus, kids need to try all sorts of new things to stretch their imagination and develop new motor skills.”
Scotty Henley, executive director of Washington’s historic Turnage Theater, is another proponent of providing arts experiences for children.
“I believe the value in producing programming for children extends to their creative development in later years,” Henley said. “Regardless of whether they stay involved in artistic endeavors, the imaginative element presented in artistic pieces — such as theater, painting, music and sculpture — can only help with the critical thinking process as they mature. The presence and ability to arrive at decisions that may or may not be considered the norm is the foundation for many of the successes our world has witnessed.”
Parents can help foster the arts at home by simply opening a book, Toler said.
“I think a very basic thing that anybody can do at home is to read, to read with your kids,” he said. “It definitely opens up the world to your children, and that’s a beginning.”