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Cute Crafts Don't Cut It

If we substitute cute craft ideas for real art lessons and deprive the children of creative thinking opportunities, we must examine our goals. Are we simply trying to provide a break from the rigors of academics? Are we responding to the pressure of providing something the children can take home with them? While this kind of "art" tends to minimize creativity, a well-planned and carefully structured program can offer, perhaps, the most accessible avenue to creative development in the elementary school program.

Problem solving is an essential tool in today's world, one that requires a number of important cognitive skills and includes not only producing ideas but also choosing a solution from among them. Understandably, such skill development is readily available through stimulating art assignments, the kind that require the children to produce numbers of novel ideas and then to make a series of choices in order to complete the assignment.

Although the children may enjoy going through the motions of assembling a craft, such "dictated art" sends the message that, perhaps, their own ideas are not good enough and that they must depend on an adult for any planning or real thinking. We must be diligent in examining the educational value of every exercise we assign. Are the children developing problem-solving skills, and therefore, genuine thinking ability? Or are they simply following instructions?

Art, A Right-Brain Thing

Eager anticipation, beaming smiles, happy productivity - these are clues that echo the joy of art, long recognized by those who work with children. But the academic value of art has been misunderstood. Once considered an unnecessary addition that could be discarded if the schedule were too hectic or the budget too tight, art is now being seen in a new light. Having recently gained credibility for its contribution to cognitive development, art education may actually be one of the most effective educational tools to pave the way into the twenty-first century. In fact, a quality art program is considered by some as one of the hallmarks of excellent schooling.

While teachers concede that children love art, they often include it only to provide enrichment or a relaxing break from the normal routine of academics. Though well meaning, this purpose reflects a lack of understanding regarding the developmental function of the creative arts. Furthermore, a teacher's dismissive attitude about the academic importance of art undoubtedly prevents the children from reaping the benefits of a sound art education, since such a teacher will probably fail to present meaningful assignments. Not just any art activity qualifies as "hallmark status."

Why, then, are the creative arts so valuable? Do they really contribute to cognitive development? While the left and the right halves of the human brain fulfill different intellectual functions, most traditional school subjects tend to develop only the left side. Where a good art program is lacking, the right hemisphere, which is responsible for the more creative kinds of thinking, is generally left underdeveloped. Right brain focused activites, such as creativity, are major goals of art education. And the ability to generate new ideas through expanded thinking is a basic ingredient of creativity. In spelling, reading, or mathematics, creativity may be no great asset. Yet, as corporate leaders, city planners and those whose jobs require divergent thinking have discovered, some problems in life may have multiple solutions. Problem-solving abilities, then, are a necessity of life. Unless we provide subjects such as art that focus on creative development, and therefore, on right brain development, we are not providing a well-rounded education for the child. Not surprisingly, since the two sides of the brain are linked, recent research is indicating that where artistic development occurs, an improvement in general academic performance results. These findings are being clearly reflected in SAT scores.

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