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In this age of standardized testing and STEM programs, it’s easy to imagine that the only subjects that matter are reading and math. Schools in recent years have dismantled music and art classes, relegating these at most to once-a-week “specials” intended mostly to provide reading and math teachers with some planning time. Many parents are quicker to sign their kids up for afterschool tutoring than for guitar lessons or a ceramics class. They want to get, naturally, the biggest bang for their buck.

A new study, however, indicates that the arts promote the same abilities prized by schools these days. Whether your child is truly interested in art and music or simply wants to do well in science, taking classes in the arts is an important part of kids’ education.

The study, conducted by researchers at Michigan State University and published in Economic Development Quarterly, investigated the childhoods and later careers of students who graduated from the MSU Honors College with majors in science, technology, engineering or math between 1990 and 1995. Those graduates who today own businesses or hold patents had much more arts training as children than other graduates.

In addition, the researchers found that more arts leads to more success in STEM fields. According to Rex LaMore of MSU, “If you started as a young child and continued in your adult years, you’re more likely to be an inventor as measured by the number of patents generated, businesses formed or articles published. And that was something we were surprised to discover.”

In addition to sheer volume of arts exposure the kind of art kids dabbled in mattered too. Those who had taken courses in metal work or electronics were 42% more likely than other kids to grow up to hold a patent, as were 30% of kids who has tried out photography. A whopping 87.5 percent of those who explored architecture as children were likely to form a company. The secret, apparently, is early training in creative thinking that supports later innovation.

“The skills you learn from taking things apart and putting them back together translate into how you look at a product and how it can be improved,” according to Eileen Roraback, also from MSU. “In our study, a biologist working in the cancer field, who created a business, said her writing skills helped her to write business plans and win competitions.”

For parents, the next steps are clear:

  1. Encourage your children (boys as well as girls) to take classes in art, music, or other creative fields.
  2. Support at-home dabbling in creative problem solving, by setting aside space and equipment for a workshop. Just a corner of the garage or basement might do and tools scrounged from yard sales and thrift stores.
  3. Buy toys that encourage building and tinkering, such as Lego or blocks, and don’t inhibit how your kids play with these. It’s not so important that they follow the directions to duplicate the package front. It’s more important that they find innovative uses for the materials.
  4. Rally around the arts at your child’s school. Art and music are not frills or just in-school babysitting while “real” teachers plan. The arts encourage exactly the sort of thinking that develops into life success.

Remember Sid, the sketchy kid next door in Toy Story? That’s the boy who mixed and matched toy parts to create scary-looking figures he then launched with model rockets. Research suggests that that child was headed, not for juvenile detention, but for success as an inventor. His parents had the right idea.

Supporting the arts in your child is a good idea too.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

Block play has been around for a very long time and wooden blocks are a staple of preschool equipment. These days, children at home enjoy wooden blocks, but also Lincoln Logs, Lego, and other building toys. Have you ever wondered why block play seems so interesting? What do kids get out of it?

A study published this month in the journal Child Development found that block play develops children’s spatial reasoning ability, even in children as young as three. As you might remember, spatial reasoning is a key element in intelligence tests. Those puzzles about rotating figures, deciding what pieces would fit into an irregular shape, and even finding the example that is the same as another from a set of very similar possibilities – these are all tests of spatial reasoning and they are all indicators of higher-level thinking skill.

In addition to just increasing brain power, playing with blocks of all sorts increases children’s math ability. They master concepts of shape and size, determine relationships between blocks (“which is under another?”) and solve spatial problems as part of building structures.

In one experiment, three-year-old children were asked to use Duplo sized Legos to recreate a model shape. Six of these tasks ranged in difficulty from “easy” to “tricky.” Just about all the children were able to duplicate a model that required only two pieces. But only children whose parents reported more block play at home and more conversation at home about block play were able to recreate the most difficult models.

The take-aways from this study are obvious:

  1. Provide your child with blocks, Lego, puzzles, and other hands-on toys requiring development of spatial relations. Notice that, while video games are often touted as means of developing spatial relations skill, hands-on play with “real” blocks should come first.
  2. Remember that blocks are not “boy toys.” Girls, who may have been discouraged in years past from playing with blocks, should build with blocks too. Last I checked, girls are as smart as boys and need the same opportunities to learn too.
  3. Talk about spatial relations with your child. Use words like “between,” “under,” “beside,” and so forth when you play together with blocks and in other situations throughout the day.
  4. Start now. The three-year-olds in the study were demonstrating what they had learned in their first few years of life. Find block toys that are safe for small children and get down on the floor and play.

Parents often think of math as a “school skill.” This study demonstrates once again that what is learned in school builds on what children have learned already at home. Parents are a child’s first teachers and, happily, part of that teaching includes playing with blocks.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

Angry faced toys are nothing new. You might remember The Incredible Hulk action figure and other grim-faced heroes and villains from your childhood toy box.

But angry-faced Lego figures are new, according to a study from the University of Canterbury (England). Researchers there catalogued 628 different mini-figure heads manufactured by Lego between 1975 and 2010. They then asked 264 adult volunteers to rate the emotions each face represented, including the intensity of emotion expressed.

The study found that the variety of emotions these tiny heads displayed increased starting in the 1990s. Before that time, all Lego faces could be characterized as “happy.” Since the 1990s, however, faces displaying anger, sadness, disgust, surprise and fear were added to the mix, so that happy faces account for only about half of the minifigures Lego creates today.

The question, of course, is does this matter?

Lego playsets are made to be assembled, of course, but they also are intended to be played with in pretend scenarios. Pretend play is considered an essential part of child development, for working through real life situations in a safely imaginative context and for development of problem solving skills. Most pretend play revolves around some sort of conflict for just these reasons.

So having the option of angry faces added to the Lego play might actually be helpful. It might support pretend play in ways that happy-only faces cannot. In fact, some Lego heads actually sport two faces, with two different expressions, so a child can rotate the appropriate face into view as needed.

But, if you are concerned, if it seems that your child’s pretend play (with Lego or other toys) seems morbid or cruel, here are some suggestions to consider.

1. Monitor the content of television viewing, video game play, and reading materials. A child will reenact in play scenes she witnesses that are disturbing or confusing. In addition, a child without other play scenarios to draw on will naturally draw on whatever she remembers most vividly.

2. Pay attention to your child’s social relationships. The child who is being treated badly by peers or adults may act out this treatment in pretend play. In addition, a playmate who has been exposed to programs or games that are too mature for him may use these as the basis of pretend scenarios he plays with your own child.

3. If you object to a particular toy for any reason, do not buy it for your child or permit her to buy it with her allowance. Objectionable toys received as gifts can be returned for something more suitable or put away until your child is older.

Variety in Lego faces may be a good thing but even at worst it’s probably not a bad thing. It seems to reflect our growing willingness to be more honest with our children and to accept that being a child isn’t always sweetness and sunshine.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

Does your child have a collection?  Pokemon.  Dinosaur knowledge.  Stuffed animals.  Rocks. The complete set of just about anything.

Most kids do collect something. This behavior is so common that we might wonder why. Let’s take a look.

Collecting things fits in with children’s growing intellectual abilities. By making a collection, kids provide themselves with practice in several key thinking skills.

First, they practice the ability to classify and group things. When something is a member of a collection but something else is not, kids make decisions about attributes of objects. This is a key mathematical skill that is essential for scientific thinking as well. Kids group objects within their collection, too, based on characteristics that go together.

Second, having a collection exercises a child’s ability to see distinctions. This is another important skill that comes into play especially in reading – the ability to see differences between similar words.  So when your child bores you completely with a long discourse about the evolved forms of Pokemon characters or the differences in rocks or leaves or insects, that’s a good thing. Being able to see fine differences is an essential cognitive skill.

Third, collecting something provides a chance to enjoy the beauty, diversity, and unusual qualities of particular examples in the collection. This sense of wonder expands a child’s vision of the world and can contribute to a spiritual connection. Noticing the iridescence of bird plumage, the workmanship on a Barbie outfit, or the cleverness of a Lego creation – these are opportunities to marvel and step outside the everyday.

And finally, of course, having a collection can be an exercise in acquisitiveness. A collection can exist for its own sake, in fact, most collections do. So acquiring a new member of the collection is seen as good all by itself, even if the new member is not very attractive or interesting. Many kids want to “collect them all,” as marketers well know, so that adding to the collection achieves a feeling of closure or completeness.

Kids eventually outgrow a particular collection, though maybe not the impulse to collect. And that’s all right. Only if collecting seems filled with anxiety, so that it actually makes the child unhappy, is collecting a concern for parents.

Encouraging a collection is a good way to encourage thinking skills. And collecting  – or enjoying your child’s collecting impulse – can be fun for the whole family. Did you have a collection as a child? Maybe it’s time to pick that up again.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.