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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.