Art class is not just about art. Art and its foundational skill—drawing—is about reading and writing visually. When children learn to draw, they learn to see, evaluate and discern—visually. Many other subjects are affected by a child’s visual discernment and reading skills, such as math and reading.
Recently, I was invited to be part of a teacher in-service at a local Montessori pre-school. We met in the evening, after the children had gone home. As I entered the classroom, I saw shelves lined with familiar Montessori activities—all colorful, well-organized and designed to entice young learners. There is a special place in my heart for Montessori pre-schools, because their teaching method includes techniques and tools that work well for a multitude of learning styles, especially our visual and kinesthetic learners. Their engaging activities get the children interested but are also designed to help children develop discrimination, sequencing and organization skills that are critical to successful learning.
When I first set out to write Being Visual, I thought I was writing about my experience seeing the way art can be used to enhance learning. But while writing and researching, I had a very profound shift in my own understanding. I, like many others, thought learning was learning and art was there as a benefit—an enrichment. As an artist myself, I had always enjoyed participating in art class alongside my other studies. But, I now realize I had grossly underestimated the power and value of art as it relates to education.
It’s Saturday morning—time to take my grandson, Brayden, to the library for a new set of picture books. Oh, how he loves books! First, we go around the house gathering all the books we need to return. As we review them, Brayden has a bit of emotion about letting some of his favorites go, but is encouraged about finding new books—new “friends”. We jump in the car, drive over and enjoy the return process before heading in to select new friends to check out and take home.
Cooking with our kids is a great way to spend time together while involved in purposeful activity. But there’s much more that happens when we invite our kids into the kitchen. Cooking is an engaging, visual, spatial, tactile, hands-on activity that can reinforce classroom learning while developing fundamental cognitive skills.
Participating in theater is about so much more than playing dress-up. There are significant cognitive, physical, emotional and social benefits to participating in live theater. Many of these benefits are just what our visual-spatial kids need, but are also a safe, fun way for our more auditory-sequential kids to develop their “other” side.
Recently, I was invited to speak to a group of professionals at Northrop Grumman, a defense contractor located in the Chicago suburbs. A friend of mine is the leader of their “Women’s Initiatives for Networking and Success” group, one of many organizations for Northrop employees. This friend had heard about my book, Being Visual, and thought there might be some valuable insights I could share that would align with their mission as a professional development group. I happily agreed and focused the presentation on a foundational aspect of Being Visual; the nuances of left and right-brain thinking and the way it influences learning and performance.
I have been teaching young kids how to draw for over 20 years. The classes and teaching method were popular and effective, so I made a business out of it. But it’s never really been about the business. All I wanted was to work with kids — to do art with kids — to teach and empower — to see their sweet faces light up with every new discovery. My young students thrived when they got the “how to” information they craved. And while teaching children how to draw, they taught me — again and again — how important art is to them.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane to our 9th grade English class. You’re discussing Great Expectations. The teacher is reading excerpts that correlate with the notes she has on the board. Your assignment is to copy the notes, read the excerpts for homework and study the notes for a quiz the following day. Have we lost you yet?
With shortfalls in education budgets, the arts — visual art, music and theater programs — are first to be eliminated from school curriculum. Sadly, they are considered “non-essential” as they cannot be tested in the same way as other subjects. School funding and teacher performance evaluations are based on student test scores.